Operation Wetback

What was ‘Operation Wetback’ and who initiated it?

operation wetbackThe onset of Mexicans coming to work in the U.S. illegally began in the early 1900s and still continues today. However, in 1947, a new program was instilled to help with the overall agricultural labor shortage in the U.S. due to World War II. It was called the Bracero Program and was embraced by both governments (Mexican and American). Laborers were brought in from Mexico to help the United States. Some of the laborers were hired for other labor jobs in the U.S., but most remained in the agricultural industry. This particular program became very controversial due to discriminatory practices by U.S. farmers and as a result the Mexican government was called upon by its citizens to help facilitate. The Bracero program formally ended in 1964.

Because so many Mexican citizens had come to the United States, either through the Bracero Program or illegally, this then began to create a huge labor shortage in Mexico causing a depressed economy within that country. Mexico’s extensive asset of cheap human labor had been leaving its borders by the thousands for decades, and they needed to get those citizens back. In addition, Mexico’s high officials began to get pressure from their own farmers and their business communities that they needed to increase the labor population as many low level labor industries were beginning to fail.

And so “Operation Wetback” was begun. Today, this term would not be politically correct; however, at that time the use of this derogatory term was widely accepted. This insensitive program was implemented in 1954 by U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell (under the direction of President Eisenhower) along with the cooperation of the Mexican government. It was put into place to assist and stop the illegal border crossing of Mexicans into the United States due to higher wages.

What started out as a possibly helpful solution to assist with the influx of immigrants crossing illegally into the U.S., gave rise to deportations and arrests by using scare tactics, physical abuse, and many civil rights violations of U.S. citizens as well. It came to a point where agents were rounding up Mexican families regardless of their citizenship and loading them up on trains, buses, ships, and planes deporting them to Mexico. Many families were split apart never to see each other again.

At first many of the deportees were taken just across the border allowing some to return again; however, after the border agents realized that some were easily reentering the United States, they began to dump the deportees further and further into central Mexico with the help of the Mexican government. Many of the deportees were in unfamiliar territory with no money and no way to get back to their families, or even to contact them that they were at least alive. We know of at least 88 people who were dumped in the desert died due to harsh conditions. Most probably there were others, but these are the ones we know about. Eventually, the outcry where some deportees drowned reached the ears of high level Mexican officials. Tension between both governments began to increase due to this “Operation Wetback” program; whereby, Mexico eventually sent 5,000 troops to the border.

The first year, over a million people were deported and the numbers continued to decline into 1962. Records indicate that the “Operation Wetback” program only lasted a few months. Whether true or not, the program was an overall failure and a disappointment in that it was not successful in thwarting the overall illegal crossing of Mexican citizens into the United States and instead increased the overall border agents and dollars spent on unsuccessfully trying to keep people out.

The overall cost, of course, was the inhumane treatment of not only Mexican citizens, but the illegal deportation of U.S. Mexican American individuals that were deported because they did not have paperwork on them when stopped; thereby, unable to prove they were U.S. citizens.

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