Theodore's World: How Eisenhower Solved Illegal Border Crossings ~ Operation Wetbacks

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June 08, 2007

How Eisenhower Solved Illegal Border Crossings ~ Operation Wetbacks

How Eisenhower solved illegal border crossings from Mexico


George W. Bush isn't the first Republican president to face a full-blown immigration crisis on the US-Mexican border.

Fifty-three years ago, when newly elected Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, America's southern frontier was as porous as a spaghetti sieve. As many as 3 million illegal migrants had walked and waded northward over a period of several years for jobs in California, Arizona, Texas, and points beyond.

President Eisenhower cut off this illegal traffic. He did it quickly and decisively with only 1,075 United States Border Patrol agents - less than one-tenth of today's force. The operation is still highly praised among veterans of the Border Patrol.

Although there is little to no record of this operation in Ike's official papers, one piece of historic evidence indicates how he felt. In 1951, Ike wrote a letter to Sen. William Fulbright (D) of Arkansas. The senator had just proposed that a special commission be created by Congress to examine unethical conduct by government officials who accepted gifts and favors in exchange for special treatment of private individuals.

General Eisenhower, who was gearing up for his run for the presidency, said "Amen" to Senator Fulbright's proposal. He then quoted a report in The New York Times, highlighting one paragraph that said: "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."

Years later, the late Herbert Brownell Jr., Eisenhower's first attorney general, said in an interview with this writer that the president had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration when he took office.

America "was faced with a breakdown in law enforcement on a very large scale," Mr. Brownell said. "When I say large scale, I mean hundreds of thousands were coming in from Mexico [every year] without restraint."

Although an on-and-off guest-worker program for Mexicans was operating at the time, farmers and ranchers in the Southwest had become dependent on an additional low-cost, docile, illegal labor force of up to 3 million, mostly Mexican, laborers.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, published by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association, this illegal workforce had a severe impact on the wages of ordinary working Americans. The Handbook Online reports that a study by the President's Commission on Migratory Labor in Texas in 1950 found that cotton growers in the Rio Grande Valley, where most illegal aliens in Texas worked, paid wages that were "approximately half" the farm wages paid elsewhere in the state.

Profits from illegal labor led to the kind of corruption that apparently worried Eisenhower. Joseph White, a retired 21-year veteran of the Border Patrol, says that in the early 1950s, some senior US officials overseeing immigration enforcement "had friends among the ranchers," and agents "did not dare" arrest their illegal workers.

Walt Edwards, who joined the Border Patrol in 1951, tells a similar story. He says:

"When we caught illegal aliens on farms and ranches, the farmer or rancher would often call and complain [to officials in El Paso]. And depending on how politically connected they were, there would be political intervention. That is how we got into this mess we are in now."

Bill Chambers, who worked for a combined 33 years for the Border Patrol and the then-called US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says politically powerful people are still fueling the flow of illegals.

During the 1950s, however, this "Good Old Boy" system changed under Eisenhower - if only for about 10 years.

In 1954, Ike appointed retired Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing, a former West Point classmate and veteran of the 101st Airborne, as the new INS commissioner.

Influential politicians, including Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D) of Texas and Sen. Pat McCarran (D) of Nevada, favored open borders, and were dead set against strong border enforcement, Brownell said. But General Swing's close connections to the president shielded him - and the Border Patrol - from meddling by powerful political and corporate interests.

One of Swing's first decisive acts was to transfer certain entrenched immigration officials out of the border area to other regions of the country where their political connections with people such as Senator Johnson would have no effect.

Then on June 17, 1954, what was called "Operation Wetback" began. Because political resistance was lower in California and Arizona, the roundup of aliens began there. Some 750 agents swept northward through agricultural areas with a goal of 1,000 apprehensions a day. By the end of July, over 50,000 aliens were caught in the two states. Another 488,000, fearing arrest, had fled the country.

By mid-July, the crackdown extended northward into Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, and eastward to Texas.

By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in Texas, and an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 illegals had left the Lone Star State voluntarily.

Unlike today, Mexicans caught in the roundup were not simply released at the border, where they could easily reenter the US. To discourage their return, Swing arranged for buses and trains to take many aliens deep within Mexico before being set free.

Tens of thousands more were put aboard two hired ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The ships ferried the aliens from Port Isabel, Texas, to Vera Cruz, Mexico, more than 500 miles south.

The sea voyage was "a rough trip, and they did not like it," says Don Coppock, who worked his way up from Border Patrolman in 1941 to eventually head the Border Patrol from 1960 to 1973.

Wild Thing's comment.............

Times certainly have changed. For one thing the title of the operation...."Wetbacks". I can just imagine a President or any politician saying that today in this world of PC ruling everything.

But it all the same Ike was not going to pussy foot around with these illegal trash coming
into our country and I liked reading about it and thought you might too.

Posted by Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 12:47 AM


Ike protected U.S. against all enemies foreign and domestic. Now we'll deploy your husband Nick on Operation Rat Patrol 2007 Chrissie! Nick kaputted Der Afrikan Corps - so the illegal alien lawbreaking landscapers don't have a chance, eh?

Posted by: darthcrUSAderworldtour07 at June 8, 2007 02:59 AM

I like Ike.

Posted by: BobF at June 8, 2007 07:23 AM

Ike had the right idea, but nowadays, he'd be called a racist and a bigot.
People liken to say that our ancestors came here illegally too, so we should pay the consequences.
No--there were NO immigration laws back then, so how could it have been illegal? And those who came during the Industrial age, went through places like Ellis Island and did it legally.
They are invading us and we are doing nothing to stop them.
Yes, we are the land of opportunity--we are the most welcoming, most understanding place on the planet, but these people are taking advantage. Didn't anyone ever teach them it's not nice or polite to take advantage of someone else? Obviously not.
We don't mind those who came her legally. But to push your way to the head of line and break the law to get your way is just flat out wrong!
Yes, I feel for children who's parents dragged them here years ago illegally because they could not speak for themselves, but now, as adults, they should realize it's time to become an American. You've been here long enough--so do something about it.
Don't just marry some American girl or guy and expect the INS not to come knocking on your front door. Yes, this is going to hurt, but get legit, we'll get off your shit.
Plain and simple.

Posted by: Lynn at June 8, 2007 09:51 AM

Ike had his trials but his decision to stop the illegals was a great move, a wetback aptly describes them. Ronald Reagan's biggest mistake in office was allowing the 1986 Amnesty. Ask any cotton farmer about Boll Weevil's, same thing, they're 'just a lookin' for a home'. Until it's gone.

Posted by: Jack at June 8, 2007 12:26 PM

Reagan later admitted that his greatest mistae as President was signing the 86 Amnesty Act.

If only employers were heavily fined I believe jobs for illegals would dry up and illegals would enact their own Operation Wetback by returning home. Of course we would also have to cut off government social services. These two, EASY acts would solve the majority of the illegal problem. Then Border Patrol and Dept of Homeland Security could concenrate on the illegals coming from Asia and the MidEast who come here for other reasons.

Posted by: TomR at June 8, 2007 12:35 PM

Darth, hahahahaha, yes he did.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 05:12 PM

Bob me too. He was not perfect but he sure as heck was better then the Bush family, any of them.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 05:13 PM

Lynn, excellent! Thank you so much that was great.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 05:14 PM

Jack, Reagan even said that was his biggest regret of his Presidency...the amnesty. I wish Busdh had the manhood and love for America to say how wrong he himself has been about this and apologize to his ONCE conservative base too.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 05:16 PM

Tom haha I just wrote that. Love how you said it too, thank you soooo much. I had forgotten about that until Nick told me this morning.

Posted by: Wild Thing at June 8, 2007 05:18 PM