In response to a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper about his stated desire to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, Donald Trump suggested that similar policies adopted by the Eisenhower administration were not “shameful” but “very effective.”

In 1954, Eisenhower implemented a law enforcement effort referred to as “Operation Wetback.” From Huffington Post Latino Voices:

The program expelled Mexican nationals and U.S. citizens, including children forced to leave with their undocumented parents.

“Like usual, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Rodolfo Acuña, professor emeritus of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, told The Huffington Post. “It’s ridiculous.”

Acuña noted that then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell, one of the pioneers of the ramping up of border security that accompanied “Operation Wetback,” had once suggested that killing people who crossed into the United States illegally might act as a deterrent.

“Brownell said, ‘Just give them some live ammo, let them shoot a few people. Then everyone will be scared and they won’t come across the border,’” Acuña said. “Really humane.”

U.S. authorities transported hundreds of thousands of immigrants deep into the heart of Mexico by train and by boat. (“[A] congressional investigation likened one vessel (where a riot took place on board) to an ‘18th century slave ship’ and a ‘penal hell ship,’” according to historian Mae Ngai.) Many died before even making it home.

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Trump has repeatedly invoked Operation Wetback—although not, it would seem, by name—as inspiration for his own. “We’re rounding them up in a very humane way, a very nice way,” he said in September. “Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer, you don’t get friendlier. They moved 1.5 million people out. We have no choice. We. Have. No. Choice,” he said at the GOP debate in November.

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“When they removed some,” Trump said Sunday, “everybody else left. So, it was very effective, in one sense.”

This is not actually true. Kelly Lytle Hernández, a historian at UCLA who has studied the practices of the time, estimated that, during the period of time the Eisenhower administration suggested was Operation Wetback’s most successful, Border Patrol deported “no more than 250,000.”

“Did the campaign end unsanctioned migration across the U.S.-Mexico border and substantially reduce the size of the undocumented population living in the United States?” she asked the Washington Post. “It did not.”

“In fact,” Hernández said, “what was far more effective at reducing the size of the undocumented population was the operation’s parallel but lesser-known campaign to legalize authorized farm workers.”

Anyway. There were about 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2014.


Contact the author of this post: brendan.oconnor@gawker.com.