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How Eisenhower solved illegal border crossings from Mexico

Article author: 
John Dillin
Article publisher: 
Christian Science Monitor
Article date: 
July 6, 2006
Article category: 
National News
Medium
Article Body: 

Fifty-three years ago [in 1954], when newly elected Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, America's southern frontier was as porous as a spaghetti sieve. As many as 3 million illegal migrants had walked and waded northward over a period of several years for jobs in California, Arizona, Texas, and points beyond.

President Eisenhower cut off this illegal traffic. He did it quickly and decisively with only 1,075 United States Border Patrol agents – less than one-tenth of today's [2006] force. The operation is still highly praised among veterans of the Border Patrol.

[Ike] quoted a report in The New York Times, highlighting one paragraph that said: "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."

Years later, the late Herbert Brownell Jr., Eisenhower's first attorney general, said in an interview with this writer that the president had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration when he took office.

America "was faced with a breakdown in law enforcement on a very large scale," Mr. Brownell said. "When I say large scale, I mean hundreds of thousands were coming in from Mexico [every year] without restraint."

...farmers and ranchers in the Southwest had become dependent on an additional low-cost, docile, illegal labor force of up to 3 million, mostly Mexican, laborers.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, published by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association, this illegal workforce had a severe impact on the wages of ordinary working Americans...

Profits from illegal labor led to the kind of corruption that apparently worried Eisenhower... In 1954, Ike appointed retired Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing... as the new INS commissioner.

Influential politicians, including Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D) of Texas and Sen. Pat McCarran (D) of Nevada, favored open borders, and were dead set against strong border enforcement, Brownell said...

One of Swing's first decisive acts was to transfer certain entrenched immigration officials out of the border area to other regions of the country where their political connections with people such as Senator Johnson would have no effect.

Then on June 17, 1954, what was called "Operation Wetback" began. Because political resistance was lower in California and Arizona, the roundup of aliens began there. Some 750 agents swept northward through agricultural areas with a goal of 1,000 apprehensions a day. By the end of July, over 50,000 aliens were caught in the two states. Another 488,000, fearing arrest, had fled the country.

By mid-July, the crackdown extended northward into Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, and eastward to Texas.

By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in Texas, and an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 illegals had left the Lone Star State voluntarily.

Unlike today, Mexicans caught in the roundup were not simply released at the border, where they could easily reenter the US. To discourage their return, Swing arranged for buses and trains to take many aliens deep within Mexico before being set free...

"Some say we cannot send 12 million illegals now in the United States back where they came from. Of course we can!" Edwards says...

While Congress debates building a fence on the border, these veterans say other actions should have higher priority.

  1. End the current practice of taking captured Mexican aliens to the border and releasing them. Instead, deport them deep into Mexico, where return to the US would be more costly.
  2. Crack down hard on employers who hire illegals. Without jobs, the aliens won't come.
  3. End "catch and release" for non-Mexican aliens. It is common for illegal migrants not from Mexico to be set free after their arrest if they promise to appear later before a judge. Few show up...