U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers

The deportation of thousands of Mexican citizens through a U.S. government program called Operation Wetback had little long-range impact on the number of Mexican workers living in the United States.

Summary of Event

A fact of life for the nation of Mexico is the existence of a highly prosperous colossus to the north, the United States. While there has long been a tendency for Mexican workers to seek to enter the more prosperous United States to work, the government of Mexico took a number of steps in the 1940’s and 1950’s to provide good jobs to keep workers at home. These steps included the building of irrigation projects and factories. Most of these projects were located in northern Mexico and had the effect of drawing a large number of workers to the border area. Jobs were not available for all who came, and many chose to make the short trip across the border into the United States to find work. The average annual income of workers in the United States was more than ten times that of Mexican workers—a strong enticement for Mexican laborers to emigrate to the United States, legally or illegally, temporarily or on a permanent basis. Immigration;United States
Operation Wetback
[kw]U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers (June 10, 1954)
[kw]Mexican Workers, U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting (June 10, 1954)
[kw]Workers, U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican (June 10, 1954)
Immigration;United States
Operation Wetback
[g]North America;June 10, 1954: U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers[04500]
[g]United States;June 10, 1954: U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers[04500]
[c]Government and politics;June 10, 1954: U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers[04500]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;June 10, 1954: U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers[04500]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 10, 1954: U.S. Government Program Begins Deporting Mexican Workers[04500]
Brownell, Herbert, Jr.
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;immigration policy
Swing, Joseph

Mexican laborers who crossed the border into the United States in the early twentieth century most often found seasonal agricultural jobs. Starting about 1930, however, the Great Depression meant that many newly unemployed U.S. workers were willing to do back-breaking work in the fields and other places for low pay. Accordingly, job opportunities for Mexicans evaporated, and those who did not leave voluntarily often were deported. Then, in 1941, war had brought new levels of employment in the United States, and as U.S. farmworkers departed to enter the military or to work in war factories, Mexican workers again began to enter the United States to do agricultural work. Most of the jobs they found were in California, Arizona, and Texas.

The U.S. and Mexican governments worked together to start a formal system called the bracero program Bracero program . The program involved recruitment of Mexican laborers, the signing of contracts, and the temporary entry of Mexicans into the United States to do farm work or other labor. The Mexican government favored the bracero program primarily because the use of contracts was expected to guarantee that Mexican citizens would be treated fairly and would receive certain minimum levels of pay and benefits. The U.S. government favored this formal system because it wanted to control the numbers of Mexicans coming into the United States and hoped the use of contracts would make it easier to ensure that the workers left when the seasonal work was completed. Labor unions in the United States supported the program because bracero workers could be recruited only after certification that no U.S. citizens were available to do the work.

The bracero program worked with some success from 1942 until its discontinuation in 1964. In some years, however, and in certain localities, the use of illegal, non-bracero workers from Mexico continued. Some U.S. employers found too much red tape in the process of securing bracero laborers, and they also noted that bracero wage levels were much higher than the wages that could be paid to illegal immigrants. Many Mexicans crossed the border illegally, because not nearly enough jobs were available through the bracero program. When the U.S. economy stumbled in 1953 and 1954, many U.S. citizens began to speak out against the presence of illegal workers. They complained that illegal immigrants were a drain on U.S. charities and government programs. They also claimed that the immigrants took jobs at substandard wages that should go to U.S. citizens at higher wages.

When reporters first asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., if they intended to enforce vigorously the immigration laws, both seemed uninterested in the issue. As popular agitation increased, however, the Eisenhower administration began to develop plans for what was called “Operation Wetback.” The operation was designed to round up illegal immigrants and deport them, while forcing large farming operations to use the limited and controlled bracero labor instead of uncontrolled and illegal labor. Operation Wetback was under the overall control of the Immigration and Naturalization Service Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. (INS), directed by Joseph Swing, while day-to-day operations were supervised by an official of the U.S. Border Patrol, Border Patrol, U.S. Harlon B. Carter Carter, Harlon B. .

Operation Wetback took its name from a slang term first used in the southwestern United States to refer to Mexican immigrants who swam the Rio Grande or otherwise crossed into the U.S. illegally, seeking economic opportunities. The INS and its Border Patrol launched the operation in California on June 10, 1954, relying heavily on favorable press coverage to secure the support and cooperation of the general public. INS officials greatly exaggerated the number of agents they had in the field and the number of illegal immigrants who had left or had been deported. Press coverage in California was generally quite favorable to the operation, praising the professional attitude of Border Patrol and INS agents.

On the first day of the operation, more than one thousand persons were sent out of California on buses chartered by the INS. For several weeks, the number of daily deportations hovered around two thousand. The deportees were handed over to Mexican authorities at border towns like Nogales in Sonora, and the Mexican government sent them farther south by rail, hoping to prevent any quick reentry into the United States.

By July 15, the main phase of the operation in California was complete. On that day, Border Patrol agents began their work in Texas. There, they met stiff local opposition from powerful farm interests, who were quite content to hire illegal workers and pay them only half the prevalent wage earned by U.S. or bracero workers. Agents met a hostile press as well, and in some cases they had trouble securing a meal or lodging. Still, the operation resulted in the deportation by bus of tens of thousands of illegal workers in Texas. The INS conducted smaller phases of the operation in Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and other states. Most of the illegal workers picked up nationwide were farmworkers, but some industrial workers were apprehended in cities from San Francisco to Chicago.

During the operation, some complaints were registered about the conduct of Border Patrol officers. The officers sometimes were characterized as harsh and hateful in their actions, and they were regularly accused of harassing U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry. Some of these complaints seem to have been without foundation, particularly in Texas, where the powerful farm interests opposed the entire operation. On the other hand, there were a number of documented cases of U.S. citizens who had brown skin or Hispanic surnames being apprehended and deported to Mexico.

Many of the illegal immigrants who were detained were kept in camps behind barbed wire pending their deportation. Some Mexicans and Mexican Americans spent several months hiding in terror, having quit their jobs to prevent their being apprehended at work. Deportees had to pay for their bus passage back to Mexico, to the dismay of human rights activists, who pointed out the unfairness of making someone pay for a trip he or she was being forced to take. The INS responded that the deportees should agree that paying for a bus trip back to Mexico was preferable to prosecution under the immigration laws and a possible jail sentence.


Operation Wetback perpetuated racist stereotypes of Mexicans in the media: Some press reports had implied that the workers were ignorant, disease-ridden union busters. As for the effectiveness of the operation in meeting its goals, nearly 100,000 illegal immigrants were returned to Mexico in the space of about three months. On the other hand, INS claims that more than one million illegal immigrants fled to Mexico on their own rather than face arrest were grossly exaggerated. Moreover, the boost to the bracero program was only temporary; many employers returned to the use of illegal workers before the end of the 1950’s. The operation, while effective in the short term, provided no long-term solutions to the needs of Mexican workers, U.S. employers, or those who clamored for a more restricted U.S. border. Immigration;United States
Operation Wetback

Further Reading

  • De Genova, Nicholas P. “Migrant ’Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31, no. 1 (2002): 419-447. A detailed study of “ethnographically informed” scholarship that focuses, especially, on the everyday lives of undocumented workers in the United States. Also examines the significance of the terms “illegality” and “deportability” and how these words led to the idea that people can be “illegal.”
  • García, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. García’s work, based on his 1977 doctoral dissertation, thoroughly reviews the background, the deportation program, and the operation’s aftermath.
  • Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Comprehensive discussion of Mexican labor in the United States.
  • Jenkins, J. Craig. “Push/Pull in Recent Mexican Migration to the U.S.” International Migration Review 2 (1977): 178-189. A thoughtful discussion of factors contributing to legal and illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States.
  • Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge, 2002. Examines the Clinton-era repatriation program of the 1990’s. Useful as a comparative history.
  • Norquest, Carrol. Rio Grande Wetbacks: Migrant Mexican Workers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. Discusses Operation Wetback in the larger context of Mexico-United States immigration issues.
  • United States. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1954/1955. This annual report gives the U.S. government’s official explanation of the events known as Operation Wetback.
  • _______. Mexican Agricultural Laborers Admitted and Mexican Aliens Located in Illegal Status, Years Ended June 30, 1949-1967. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. Shows changes in numbers of bracero workers and apprehensions of illegal Mexican immigrants.

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