Operation Wetback: The Largest Mass Deportation in U.S. History

Illegal Mexican immigrant farm workers boarding buses during Operation Wetback
Operation Wetback Mass Deportation Program, 1954. Life Magazine Photo Archive

Operation Wetback was a U.S. immigration law enforcement program conducted during 1954 that resulted in the mass deportation to Mexico of as many as 1.3 million Mexicans who had entered the country illegally. Even though the deportation was originally requested by the government of Mexico to prevent much-needed Mexican farm laborers from working in the United States, Operation Wetback evolved into an issue that strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mexico.

At the time, Mexican laborers were permitted to legally enter the U.S. temporarily for seasonal farm work under the Bracero program, a World War II agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Operation Wetback was launched partly in response to problems caused by abuses of the Bracero program and the American public’s anger over the inability of the U.S. Border Patrol to reduce the number of seasonal Mexican farm workers illegally living permanently in the United States.

Key Takeaways: Operation Wetback

  • Operation Wetback was a massive U.S. immigration law enforcement deportation program conducted during 1954.
  • Operation Wetback resulted in the forced immediate return to Mexico of as many as 1.3 million Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally.
  • The deportations were originally requested and assisted by the government of Mexico to prevent much-needed Mexican farm laborers from working in the United States.
  • While it temporarily slowed illegal immigration from Mexico, Operation Wetback failed to achieve its larger goals.

Wetback Definition

Wetback is a derogatory term, often used as an ethnic slur, to refer to foreign citizens living in the United States as undocumented immigrants. The term was originally applied only to Mexican citizens who entered the U.S. illegally by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande River forming the border between Mexico and Texas and getting wet in the process.

Background: Pre-World War II Mexican Immigration

Mexico’s longstanding policy of discouraging its citizens from migrating to the United States turned around in the early 1900s when Mexican President Porfirio Díaz along with other Mexican government officials realized that the country’s abundant and cheap labor force was its greatest asset and the key to stimulating its struggling economy. Conveniently for Díaz, the United States and its booming agricultural industry created a ready and eager market for Mexican labor.

During the 1920s, over 60,000 Mexican farm workers would temporarily enter the U.S. legally every year. Over the same period, however, more than 100,000 Mexican farm workers per-year entered the U.S. illegally, with many not returning to Mexico. As its own agribusiness started to suffer due to the growing shortage of field labor, Mexico began pressuring the United States to enforce its immigration laws and return its workers. At the same time, America’s large-scale farms and agribusinesses were recruiting ever-more illegal Mexican workers to meet their growing need for year-round labor. From the 1920s until the onset of World War II, the majority of field workers on American farms, especially in the Southwestern states, were Mexican nationals—most of whom had crossed the border illegally.

The WWII Bracero Program

As World War II began to drain America’s labor force, the governments of Mexico and the United States implemented the Bracero Program, an agreement allowing Mexican laborers to work temporarily in the U.S. in exchange for the return of illegal Mexican immigrant farm workers to Mexico. Rather than supporting the American military effort, Mexico agreed to provide the U.S. with its laborers. In return, the U.S. agreed to tighten its border security and fully enforce its restrictions against illegal immigrant labor.

The first Mexican braceros (Spanish for “farm workers”) entered the United States under the Bracero Program agreement on September 27, 1942. While some two million Mexican nationals took part in the Bracero Program, disagreements and tensions over its effectiveness and enforcement would lead to the implementation of Operation Wetback in 1954.

Bracero Program Problems Spawn Operation Wetback

Despite the availability of legal migrant labor through the Bracero Program, many American growers found it cheaper and faster to continue hiring illegal laborers. On the other side of the border, the Mexican government was unable to process the number of Mexican citizens seeking work legally in the United States. Many who were unable to get into the Bracero Program entered the U.S. illegally instead. While Mexico’s laws allowed its citizens with valid labor contracts to cross the border freely, U.S. law allowed foreign labor contracts to be made only after the foreign laborer had legally entered the country. This web of red tape, combined with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) entry fees, literacy tests, and costly naturalization process, prevented even more Mexican labors from crossing the border legally seeking better wages in the United States. 

Food shortages and massive unemployment, combined with population growth, drove ever more Mexican citizens to enter the United States, legally and illegally. In the United States, growing concerns about the social, economic, and security issues surrounding illegal immigration pressured the INS to step up its apprehension and removal efforts. At the same time, Mexico’s agriculture-driven economy was failing due to a lack of field workers.

In 1943, in response to an agreement between the governments of Mexico and the United States, the INS greatly increased the number of Border Control Officers patrolling the Mexican border. However, illegal immigration continued. While more Mexicans were being deported, they soon reentered the United States, thus largely negating the Border Patrol’s efforts. In response, the two governments implemented a strategy in 1945 of relocating deported Mexicans deeper into Mexico, making it harder for them to re-cross the border. The strategy, however, had little if any impact.

When ongoing U.S.-Mexican negotiations on the Bracero Program fell apart in early 1954, Mexico sent 5,000 armed military troops to the border. U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by appointing Gen. Joseph M. Swing as INS Commissioner and ordering him to resolve the border control issue. Gen. Swing’s plan for doing so became Operation Wetback.

Implementation of Operation Wetback

In early May 1954, Operation Wetback was publicly announced as a coordinated, joint effort to be conducted by the U.S. Border Patrol working alongside the Mexican government to control illegal immigration.

On May 17, 1954, a total of 750 Border Patrol Officers and investigators, began finding and immediately—without a court-issued order of deportation or due process of law—deporting Mexicans who had entered the U.S. illegally. Once transported back across the border on a fleet of buses, boats and planes, deportees were handed off to Mexican officials who took them to unfamiliar towns in central Mexico where job opportunities were to have been created for them by the Mexican government. While the main focus of Operation Wetback was in the border-sharing regions of Texas, Arizona, and California, similar operations were also conducted in the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.

During these immigration enforcement “sweeps,” many Mexican Americans—often based solely on their physical appearance—were detained by INS agents and forced to prove their American citizenship. INS agents would only accept birth certificates, which few people carry with them, as proof of citizenship. Over the course of Operation Wetback, an undetermined number of Mexican Americas who were unable to produce birth certificates quickly enough were wrongly deported.

Disputed Results and Failure

In the first year of Operation Wetback, the INS claimed to have completed 1.1 million “returns” defined at the time as “confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal.” However, this number included thousands of illegal immigrants who voluntarily returned to Mexico fearing arrest. The estimated number of removals fell to fewer than 250,000 in 1955.

Though the INS would claim that in total 1.3 million people were deported over the course of the operation, that number is widely disputed. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez contends the effective number is closer to 300,000. Due to the numbers of immigrants who were apprehended and deported multiple times, and the number of Mexican Americans wrongly deported, it is difficult to estimate accurately the total number of people deported.  

Even during the height of the operation, American growers continued to recruit illegal Mexican workers due to the lower labor cost and their desire to avoid the government red tape involved with the Bracero program. It was the continued hiring of these immigrants that ultimately doomed Operation Wetback.

Consequences and Legacy

The INS called the program a success of international cooperation and declared the border had “been secured.” However, newspapers and newsreels in the United States depicted the undeniably harsh side of Operation Wetback, showing images of detained men herded into crudely-erected holding pens in city parks before being loaded on buses and trains and sent back to Mexico.

In her book Impossible Subjects, historian Mae Ngai described the deportation of many Mexicans from Port Isabel, Texas packed on ships under conditions described in a congressional investigation as being similar to those on an “eighteenth-century slave ship.”

In some cases, Mexican immigration agents dumped returning detainees in the middle of the Mexican desert with no food, water—or promised jobs—in sight. Ngai wrote:

"Some 88 braceros died of sun stroke as a result of a round-up that had taken place in 112-degree heat, and [an American labor official] argued that more would have died had Red Cross not intervened.”

While it might have temporarily slowed illegal immigration, Operation Wetback did nothing to curb the need for cheap Mexican labor in the United States or reduce unemployment in Mexico as its planners had promised. Today, illegal immigration from Mexico and other countries, and the possible “solution” of mass deportations remain controversial, often heated topics of U.S. political and public debate. 

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