Operation Wetback Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Considered an extreme example of overaggressive immigration enforcement, Operation Wetback rounded up and deported nearly 300,000 Mexicans working in the United States and detained more than 1 million more Mexicans who crossed the U.S. border.

Operation Wetback was a response to mounting American sentiment against the large numbers of Mexicans who entered the United States illegally after World War II and the Mexican government’s concern that its citizens working in the United States should not be employed without labor contracts. Between 1942 and 1964, almost 5 million Mexicans were admitted into the United States as Bracero programbracero workers under a series of U.S.-Mexican agreements that became progressively more favorable to American farm employers over the years. Under the program, the U.S. government guaranteed the wages promised to braceros during World War II. Afterward, however, the American farmers who employed the workers were made responsible for paying both the wages of the workers and their transportation costs from the interior of Mexico to their farms.Mexican immigrants;Operation WetbackOperation Wetback"Wetbacks"[wetbacks]FarmworkersDeportation;Operation WetbackMexicanimmigrants;Operation WetbackOperation Wetback"Wetbacks"[wetbacks]FarmworkersDeportation;Operation Wetback[cat]MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS;Operation Wetback[03980][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Operation Wetback[03980][cat]BORDERS;Operation Wetback[03980][cat]DEPORTATION;Operation Wetback[03980]

Meanwhile, the large numbers of Mexicans who continued to enter the United States illegally saved many American employers the cost of their transportation. Known as “wetbacks” even in official documents, these workers were returned to the border when they were detected inside the United States and were then issued work permits and returned to the farms on which they had been previously employed. Between 1947 and 1949, two “wetbacks” were legalized in this way for every Mexican who was legally admitted to the United States under the bracero program.

The[a]Migratory Labor Agreement of 1951Migratory Labor Agreement of 1951 shifted more authority over bracero workers from the Mexican government to American farm employers. The Mexican government wanted American employers to recruit their workers within the interior of Mexico, but under the 1951 agreement, the U.S. Department of Labor opened five reception centers along the international border to which Mexicans seeking American jobs could report. Employers arranged and paid for transportation from the reception centers to their farms.

One day after he signed the Migratory Labor Agreement into law, President Truman, Harry S.;and bracero program[bracero program]Harry S. Truman asked the U.S. Congress to approve legislation making it a federal crime knowingly to hire unauthorized immigrant workers. Congress refused. Two sections of the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952;"Texas proviso"[Texas proviso]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 included the so-called Texas proviso, which made harboring illegal immigrants subject to a two-thousand-dollar fine and up to five years imprisonment, while exempting employment from the definition of “harboring.”

Meanwhile, illegal immigration from Mexico surged, and U.S. attorney general Brownwell, HerbertHerbert Brownwell called what he observed “shocking” during his August, 1953, visit to the Mexican border. Brownwell appointed General Swing, JosephJoseph Swing to be commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), instructing him to “clean up” the border. Operation Wetback began June 17, 1954, in Arizona;Operation WetbackArizona and California;Operation WetbackCalifornia, with 750 INS agents assigned to farming areas trying to arrest 1,000 unauthorized Mexican immigrants a day.

State and local police joined the sweeps of Latino barrios as the program spread to other states, and thousands of Mexicans returned home on their own. The setting up of highway checkpoints and railroad checks resulted in the detainment of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on vagrancy charges until INS agents could verify their status. When the INS ran out of funding in mid-September, 1954, the operation was halted. By then, some 1.1 million unauthorized foreigners had been apprehended during the federal fiscal year that had ended on June 30, 1954, but only 254,000 had been apprehended during the following fiscal year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor had made it easier for farmers to hire braceros by relaxing rules such as minimum six-week contracts and the enforcement of wage and housing regulations. Consequently, the number of braceros admitted to the United States rose from 200,000 in 1953 to 400,000 in 1955.

Operation Wetback had several long-term effects. The first was the public revulsion at the rough rounding up of families who included U.S. citizens with young babies. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would again attempt a similar mass repatriation. Second, easing farmers’ access to bracero workers encouraged the expansion of labor-intensive agriculture without raising wages, sowing the seeds for subsequent unauthorized migration. Finally, Operation Wetback made future efforts of the United States to negotiate migration agreements with Mexico more difficult.Mexican immigrants;Operation WetbackOperation Wetback"Wetbacks"[wetbacks]FarmworkersDeportation;Operation Wetback

Further Reading
  • Garcia, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
  • Garcia y Griego, Manuel. “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States, 1942-64.” In Between Two Worlds: Mexican Immigrants in the United States, edited by David G. Gutierrez. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1996.
  • Kirstein, Peter. Anglo over Bracero. A History of the Mexican Worker in the United States from Roosevelt to Nixon. San Francisco: R&E Associates, 1977.

Border Patrol, U.S.

Bracero program

Deportation

El Paso incident

Guest-worker programs

Mexican deportations of 1931

Mexican immigrants

Texas

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