What was Operation "Wetback?" How Eisenhower influenced Donald Trump's immigration plan

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump laid out a 10-point plan to implement his evolving policies on immigration reform during a speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31.

One part of his plan is to end a process widely derided by critics as "catch and release," where U.S. border patrol agents are instructed not to arrest low-level criminals who are also undocumented immigrants.

"We are going to end catch and release. We catch them, oh go ahead. We catch them, go ahead. Under my administration, anyone who illegally crosses the border will be detained until they are removed out of our country and back to the country from which they came," Trump said during his speech.

Then Trump invoked former President Dwight D. Eisenhower  — a leader who has clearly influenced his decisions on immigration.

Source: Graphiq

"They'll be brought great distances. We're not dropping them right across. They learned that. President Eisenhower. They'd drop them across, right across, and they'd come back. And across. Then when they flew them to a long distance, all of a sudden that was the end. We will take them great distances. But we will take them to the country where they came from, OK?" he said.

This isn't the first time Trump has mentioned Eisenhower while talking about immigration.

"Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower — a good president, great president, people liked him," he said during a Republican primary debate in November. "He moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again, beyond the border: They came back. Then moved them way south. They never came back."

What Trump is referring to is Operation Wetback, a highly controversial military-style operation created by Eisenhower, who was also a decorated U.S. Army general, to force undocumented Mexican immigrants out of the country and back to Mexico.

The operation began on June 17, 1954. Eisenhower put his former West Point classmate and World War II veteran Gen. Joseph Swing in charge as commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.

Donald Trump delivers his immigration policy speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31.Source: Ralph Freso/Getty Images
Donald Trump delivers his immigration policy speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31.  Ralph Freso/Getty Images

With just over 1,000 border patrol agents — today the U.S. has more than 20,000 — the operation cracked down on undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. Some estimate that more than a million people were deported.  

And, as Trump pointed out during his speech in Phoenix, instead of deporting undocumented Mexican immigrants to just across the border, Eisenhower took them deeper into the country, making it more difficult for them to re-enter into the U.S.

"To discourage their return, Swing arranged for buses and trains to take many aliens deep within Mexico before being set free," wrote John Dillan in the Christian Science Monitor. "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."

As for Trumps' reference to Eisenhower removing 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, PolitiFact rates that as "half true."

While the idea that the operation resulted in more than 1 million deportations is not pulled out of thin air, historians widely cite that number as far too high for a variety of reasons — including the fact that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants would have had to self-deport. Also, it wasn't just a deportation program. The campaign accompanied more legal immigration opportunities.

There's an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. In 2011, about 60% of undocumented immigrants in the United States were from Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Source: Graphiq

Critics of Operation Wetback also point out that the mission was "tragic" for many immigrants.

"The Eisenhower mass deportation policy was tragic," Alfonso Aguilar, of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, told NPR's Morning Edition

Human rights were violated. People were removed to distant locations without food and water. There were many deaths, unnecessary deaths. Sometimes even U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin, of Mexican origin were removed. It was a travesty. It was terrible. Immigrants were humiliated. So to say it's a success story is ridiculous. It shows that Mr. Trump doesn't know what he's talking about.

Trump defended his plan and its similarity to Operation Wetback in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper back in January. Tapper noted that many have called the operation a "shameful chapter in American history."

"Well, some people do, and some people think it was a very effective chapter," Trump responded. "When they brought them back [to Mexico], they removed some, everybody else left. And it was very successful, everyone said. So I mean, that's the way it is. Look, we either have a country, or we don't. If we don't have strong borders, we have a problem."

In a recent Reddit AMA, Trump praised Eisenhower — along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.