Legacy and Lexicon: A Look into Operation Wetback's Impact on Immigration

In the summer of 1954 the United States government carried out a mass deportation of over one million people. [1] This was Operation Wetback. In recent years there has been increased concern surrounding immigrants entering the United States via the Southern Border. Politicians have capitalized on the issue which has led to an increase in divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Much of this rhetoric has centered on describing immigration, especially across the Southern Border as an invasion. [2]However, this type of anti-immigrant rhetoric is not new. Late-nineteenth-century language frequently described the influx of Chinese immigrants as an invasion. [3] The terminology used to describe and label people who immigrate to the United States illegally via the Southern Border has changed several times throughout the past 60 years. We have shifted from “undesirable” to “wetback” to “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented” throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. [4] These changes reflect an effort to be more politically correct and take on a softer approach when discussing immigration and immigrants. Despite these changes in terminology, the question of if deportation tactics have also changed still looms. This is one of the questions that this paper will seek to answer. This paper will delve into the summer of 1954 with Operation Wetback to look at Mexico’s role in Operation Wetback; where some of the terms for people who immigrate illegally comes from (especially the term ‘wetback’); if deportation tactics have changed; and, if modern-day U.S. immigration policy is related to that of the mid-twentieth century. This paper is an examination of the legacy of Operation Wetback.

The terminology surrounding people who come to the U.S. without proper authorization has changed over the years. As previously mentioned, Americans have gone from using the term “wetback” to “undocumented” in a span of about 60 years. The term “wetback” came about to describe Mexican nationals who illegally crossed into the United States via the Rio Grande - thus, having had a wet back. Today, this is a pejorative term and racial slur that is not considered appropriate. But, for Americans in the mid-twentieth century, it was not considered to be particularly offensive (to the masses). On the surface level, it seems like an odd choice for the United States government to have named an official policy “wetback,” given its awkward nature and history. However, it is crucial to think about why that name was chosen. At the time, “wetback” was still a jarring word. It immediately brought forth the idea that someone was committing a crime against the United States. They [wetbacks] were an enemy and a criminal. However, it is important to realize the nuance in the word. The Spanish translation is espaldas mojadas. And, for some Mexican-Americans, the term while being used by a Mexican or Mexican-American is not offensive. They mean it colloquially and as a descriptor term for people who immigrated to the United States. But, when used by a white person, it is offensive. [5] And this makes sense. The word was created by white people to be an offensive term for describing a minority group. This logic and methodology is similar to Black Americans who use the n-word but feel it is inappropriate, racist, and offensive for people of other racial and ethnic groups to also use the term.

The shift in terminology describing people who are not authorized to come to the United States reflects a palpable shift in the United States surrounding the way certain groups were discussed. “Wetback” as a descriptor began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s. In this same period, there were multiple movements and discussions being had about civil rights and the treatment of ethnic and racial minorities. “Wetback” was replaced with "illegal alien" through the late 1960s and 1970s. According to the United States Department of Justice, “illegal alien” is a term “to refer to foreign-born persons who entered the United States without inspection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or who entered legally as non-immigrants but remain after their authorized period of stay had expired.” [6] “Illegal alien” is similar to “illegal immigrant,” but has a different timeline. “Illegal alien” was prevalent throughout the 1970s and into the first half of the 1990s. After this period, it began to decline, and “illegal immigrant” began to become popular. [7] “Illegal alien” has more of a dehumanizing quality as it describes human beings as “aliens.” Today, “illegal immigrant” as the official term or descriptor has declined in popularity and has been subject to criticism because of the word “illegal.” The term can be described as a non-starter for discussions surrounding immigration policy. “America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word ‘illegal.’ It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions… Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person [as in “illegal immigrant”]...” [8] This gets at the crux of the issue with immigrants who were not authorized to be in the United States. Operation Wetback was not a true solution to a legitimate immigration problem. But rather, a joint attempt to rid America of a group that was demonized and viewed as a problem in the United States and to provide a “fix” to a problem in Mexico.

Oftentimes when discussing American immigration policy attention is unilaterally concerned with the United States’ policies and actions. However, this is not the most productive method. When analyzing Operation Wetback, discourse that does not acknowledge Mexico’s role will not sufficiently explain the operation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States began to pass legislation to limit the amount and types of immigrants coming into the United States. This all begins with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These laws targeted people coming to the U.S. from the Eastern Hemisphere, so Mexicans were not the targets of these laws. In 1942, the United States and Mexico agreed to the Bracero Program which allowed Mexican men to legally enter into the United States for work. Despite this program, many Mexicans entered outside of the program illegally. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Mexican government began to industrialize the agricultural sector. Mechanized farming and land privatization were being implemented, but the exodus of workers limited this process. For Mexico, the Bracero Program would have been a way to “control the international mobility of poor Mexican campesinos.” [9] But, this did not materialize well “as undocumented migration increased alongside the Bracero Program.” [10] Because of this, Mexico had a stake in Operation Wetback which necessitated Mexican officials participating in the operation. In exchange for participation in the program, the Mexican government demanded that the United States increase its border control and send Mexican nationals who circumvented the program back to Mexico. [11]

A combination of Mexico’s intense persuasion and INS Commissioner Joseph Swing’s desire for strict enforcement of immigration law came to create Operation Wetback. The decade of 1944 to 1954 was known as the “wetback decade.” The number of immigrants and INS apprehensions increased significantly each year. [12] In her book, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, Kelly Lytle Hernandez asserts that this could be interpreted as a loss of control of the border by the INS of “unsanctioned Mexican immigration.” [13] This is an interesting interpretation of the cause of Operation Wetback. According to the U.S. Border Patrol itself, the 1950s saw a period of expansion for the department with a task force developed by Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. of the Eisenhower administration“ to round up and ship home thousands of illegal immigrants from southern California. The task force moved to the lower Rio Grande valley, then to Chicago and other interior cities. The border patrol began expelling Mexican males by boatlift from Port Isabel, Texas, to Vera Cruz in September 1954.” [14] Essentially, the government is maintaining that the increase in border crossings necessitated Operation Wetback - though it is critical to note that they did not call the operation by its official name. Not heavily discussed in the CBP article is where the Mexican nationals were sent. As previously discussed, Mexico was a stakeholder in the operation and it was important for them that those who were deported did not return to the United States. To solve this problem, those who were deported were shipped to the interior of Mexico, far away from the borderlands. [15] This portion of Operation Wetback was under Mexico’s jurisdiction.

While there have not been any more true attempts to recreate Operation Wetback, the U.S. government has not made any truly successful inroads at fixing the unauthorized immigration problem. Deportations have continued, but have declined since 1954 which was an all-time high for the CBP. Under Former President Obama, three million unauthorized immigrants were sent back to their home countries. Because of his intensity on immigration, he became known as the “Deporter-in-Chief.” [16] Despite this, he also signed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) which shielded young adults who were brought to the United States as children from deportation. This combination has muddied the waters on how to analyze his actions on immigration. While running as a candidate, Former President Trump explained that he would want to model his immigration policy after Operation Wetback. His comments were heavily criticized on all sides of the political spectrum because of the methodology of Operation Wetback - it is presently described as abusive to human rights, but also because of the logistical issues. The former president expressed his desire to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in the same way that Former President Eisenhower did with one million. Despite these expressions, President Trump did not replicate Operation Wetback.. However, his presidency was heavily criticized due to the practice of separating children from their families and keeping them in ICE detention centers.

Although modern U.S. immigration policy is not following in the vein of Operation Wetback, there are still many issues that arise with the tactics used today. Unauthorized immigrants are still rounded up by ICE. The separation of children from their families will leave a stain on the United States in the same way that Operation Wetback has. Many U.S. citizens long for changes to immigration policy, but politics has gotten in the way of true and meaningful change. Operation Wetback was a futile attempt to rid the country of Mexican immigrants. The United States and Mexico forcibly removed Mexican nationals from the southwestern United States and shipped them back to central and southern Mexico. However, this did not solve the immigration issues. Mexicans and other Central Americans still move to the United States legally and illegally. If the Mexican and United States governments want to affect any lasting and positive changes, harkening back to Operation Wetback is not the most practical or humane method. The rhetoric that is used when discussing immigration problems and policies causes valid and effectual conversations to be halted. Officials should come up with better terminology that does not accurately describe the actions, not the people. Additionally, recognizing why people are fleeing their native countries to come here is critical. If the numbers of undocumented immigrants are to decrease, then solutions must get to the root of the problems; rather than simply inserting harsh and difficult-to-enforce policies.