Some years ago I had an opportunity to interview several students of mine who’d come to the U.S. as part of the Bracero Program in the 1950s. As such, they were witness to the massive assault on the Latino community called Operation Wetback. Two aspects of what I learned from them about those years stood out most prominently and have remained with me through intervening years.
One was the scope of terror that Operation Wetback unleashed. As Jose, one of the students described it, “In Los Angeles, in the center of the city, no one was shopping to buy anything, because of the raids. They (the INS – the Immigration and Naturalization Service, precursor to ICE) were grabbing people and deporting them. There were people with and without papers. There were family members who had their papers, but didn’t have them with them at that moment and they were taken away.”People were swept up while going about their normal routines, on public transportation, even in their neighborhoods solely on the basis of their apparent ethnicity, and deported. Police were instructed to pick up “vagrants” and turn them in to the INS. Special buses and trains dispatched deportees to border towns or took them deep into Mexico without regard to their regions of origin. They were loaded on to trucks and dumped off at places along the border with no regard to their survival. Some died of dehydration. Deportees were packed into ships at Port Isabel, Texas and sent to Veracruz. Once again, without regard to their region of origin.
The INS claimed it drove 1.3 million immigrants from the U.S. through the summer of 1954. It boasted that hundreds of thousands left the country out of fear.
The numbers have been questioned, but there is little doubt that families were torn apart and entire communities in California, Arizona and Texas, were terrorized and decimated.
In the aftermath of all this, as the terror campaign itself disappeared from the headlines, a new phenomenon took it’s place, noteworthy to me. As these former bracero’s related with a wry sense of irony, in the months that followed the mass deportations, there was an outcry by businesses in need of workers, stores in need of customers such that appeals went out along the U.S. Mexico border, including through radio programs – for Mexicans to return to the U.S.!
Operation Wetback and its aftermath represented, it now seems from the perspective of history, a watershed moment. A threshold had been crossed. Low-wage, non-white labor (deprived of legal rights), long the mainstay of California’s huge and profitable agriculture industry, had become an essential feature of the economy more broadly. And in subsequent years, this labor system, “pioneered” as it were, in California and the southwest, would become a crucial feature of the economy nationally.
But to return to the early 1950s . . .
The Bracero Program, introduced in 1942 as an emergency wartime labor program was extended after the war. By the 1950s it was seen as the best hope for maintaining a labor force that would be available when needed, gone when not; that would, in the words of one historian, “allow production without reproduction”.
But over time the system proved leaky. Braceros, often forced by “contractual obligations” to work under extremely exploitive conditions on farms which grossly violated supposedly “guaranteed” wages and working conditions, fled to other farms or to cities. Meanwhile, some growers sought out undocumented workers as a way of avoiding any regulatory scrutiny. The number of workers outside the control of the Bracero program increased over time in the fields and outside farm areas.
Operation Wetback was meant to reverse the trend.
Operation Wetback was launched under Eisenhower in June, 1954 after the U.S. government had extended the Bracero Program with the 1953 passage of Public Law 78.
The Operation was the brainchild of U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Brownell toured the southern border in the summer of 1953 and concluded that dramatic action was needed to contain what the press was calling the “wetback invasion” in the border region — that is, the rapid growth of non-white communities. Brownell recruited a retired army general, Joseph Swing to head the INS and plan a massive ethnic cleansing operation to begin near the U.S. border and move north. Hundreds of immigration agents were gathered from the border region and sent to the California – Mexico border to launch the operation.
Preparing the ground
In the months prior to Operation Wetback popular pictorial magazines, weekly news publications, and newspapers, wrote lurid accounts of the “dramatic influx” of “illegals” and their impact on American life. “This week” wrote Timemagazine in its April 27, 1953 edition, “wetbacks were seeping across the border at a record breaking rate — two a minute, day and night. ‘Like ants’, said Chief Patrol Inspector Ed Parker. ‘They’re swarming over the deserts like ants'”. The U.S. Attorney General Brownell warned, “wetback smuggling ‘has mushroomed into a grave social problem involving murder, prostitution, robbery, and a gigantic narcotics infiltration . . . a malignant threat to the growth of our society'”. In the words of one INS official, “(because) the ‘wetback’ starts out by violating a law . . . it is easier and . . . necessary for him to break other laws since he considers himself to be an outcast, even an outlaw”.
There were no MS-13 gangs in those days, nor Mexican drug cartels to stoke public alarm. But thiswas the era of the Cold War and McCarthyism. There were socialist countries in the world that posed a challenge to capitalism. Thus the INS was able to play on the “communist scare”. Accordingly, the INS testified to Congress that it faced a border crisis with “more than 100 Communists a day . . . (were) coming across the sparsely patrolled border”. They claimed the U.S. faced nothing less than the imminent threat of a communist invasion from its southern border.
While the PR campaign was in high gear, immigration officials met with southwest growers to assure them that the operation to come would not threaten their vital supply of cheap labor. The INS conducted numerous sweeps and raids to round up the undocumented workers from farms. They were placed in camps where (in the racist lingo of the day) the “wet backs” were “dried out” — “converted” into braceros, placing them under tighter scrutiny of growers and the government. These newly converted braceros were made available to the growers who needed them. In many cases, workers picked up in raids at a ranch, were returned as braceros to the same ranch.
Once growers were assured that their labor needs would be met, Operation Wetback was launched with great fanfare. Its raids were widely reported in the media to heighten a climate of terror in the immigrant and Latino community and encourage “self deportation”. Publicity was given to immigrants being rounded up without regard to their rights or to their families. In some cases, their heads were shaved to mark them and make it more difficult for deported immigrants to return. U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell declared publically, “Just give them [the Border Patrol] some live ammo, let them shoot a few people. Then everyone will be scared and they won’t come across the border”.
The clash of demographics
Operation Wetback failed to accomplish its goal. Not because it wasn’t well planned. Not because it wasn’t carried out with brutal determination. But because it was trying to resolve a contradiction – a conflict – that could not be resolved in the context of the current social order. In the intervening years since Operation Wetback the structural dependence of U.S. capitalism on cheap, vulnerable labor has been increasingover time. The white supremacist structure and identity, including, especially its demographic dominance, is more challenged, than ever. There is then, a clash of demographics.
Over the years both conservative and liberal nativists, Republicans and Democrats have striven to resolve the issue with immigration reforms, border militarization, border walls, detention camps, and laws criminalizing immigrants.
In 1986, under the Reagan government, the Simpson Rodino bill was passed providing a pathway to legalization for several million undocumented immigrants. The law both tacitly recognized that the economy could not function without significant numbers of immigrant workers and it attempted to cut off further immigration by imposing sanctions against employers hiring the undocumented. As in the case of Operation Wetback, it provided for the labor needs of growers. Through Simpson Rodino’s Special Agricultural Worker provision, the fields were flooded with new workers.
Simpson Rodino failed to resolve the issue. Changes in global economics played an important role.
In 1994 the U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. The essential goal was to increase U.S. capital’s competitive position in the world by, among other things, increasing the exploitation of Mexico and Mexicans.
In that same year the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which began the construction of a border wall that made crossing the southern border more difficult and dangerous.
NAFTA opened up Mexico’s markets to a flood of cheap U.S. corn and a wave of U.S. investments. Mexican farm and other bankruptcies followed. The resultant desperate flight of Mexican farmers and their families ran into increased border security with the result that immigration to the U.S. from Mexico increased and deaths along the border skyrocketed.
In that same year, California Governor Pete Wilson pushed an anti-immigrant law called, Proposition 187. This proposition was accompanied by a massive campaign to convince the public that immigrants represented a dire threat to the economic well being of the state. To deal with the logistical problem of rounding up large numbers of immigrants, Prop 187 proposed to turn teachers and medical workers into unofficial agents of the immigration service. Under its provisions teachers, doctors, nurses and paramedics would be obliged to turn in lists of names of students, patients, and so on, who they suspected of being undocumented.
Proposition 187 passed by a large margin in California, but it was a spectacular failure. In the lead up to the election thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses and others, signed cards pledging to go to prison rather than abide by the provisions of the law. Proposition 187 woke up a generation of youth, especially in the Latino community, leading to mass school walkouts and the largest demonstrations in California history. After passing in the election in 1994 the California Supreme court ruled Proposition 187, unconstitutional. More than unconstitutional, it was unenforceable.
In the years since Proposition 187, NAFTA and the construction of hundreds of miles of border walls, the opening of hundreds of immigrant detention centers, and the addition of thousands more border patrol agents, the influx of immigrants has changed the ethnic landscape of the U.S., especially its large cities. This has awakened nativist alarm and non-stop cries of crisis at the border. It has intensified, not undermined, the clash over demographics.
Trump’s Dilemma and the Resulting Danger
The rise of Donald Trump is, to a degree, a reflection of the intensity of U.S. capitalism’s demographic dilemma. Like those before him, Trump is finding this problem defies even the most vicious demagoguery. Unlike those before him, Trump is overtly using the demographic issue to build up a white supremacist base and promote a fascist program. He openly brags that he is capable of carrying out “solutions” even more brutish than have previously been attempted.
In the run up to the election in 2016 Trump referred various times to Operation Wetback and praised its goals and methods. During one primary debate Trump praised one of Operation Wetbacks uglier actions – that of deporting immigrants deep into Mexico regardless of their place of origin. Like Herbert Brownell, Trump has threatened the use of deadly force, including the threat to “machine gun” immigrants at the border.
Trump stands out as the most overt and full throttle xenophobe and nativist to occupy the White House in many years. He has made the centerpiece of his whole fascist agenda the resolution of the “problem” of immigrants and immigration. He has shown willingness to take the most heartless of actions, the separation of children from their parents. Yet in the last six months the pace of immigration into the U.S. across the southern border is greater than any time in the past ten years.
Trump’s threat to “close the border” and to – in the revealing words of Fox News – cut off aid to those (sic) “three Mexican countries”, reflects both determination and desperateness.
Trump, backed off his threat to close the border. The chaos it would have unleashed, was a direct threat to the economy. It might also have forced the truthless fanatics still riding high with their Trumpian hero to grapple with the fact that the “Greatness” of “America” owes much to merciless plunder of Mexico and Mexicans.
It’s one of the Colossus’ prominent feet of clay that, not only is the U.S. food supply largely dependent on the labor of Mexicans workers here in the U.S. – and increasingly indigenous workers from southern Mexico and Central American – but it is also dependent on food grown in Mexico. The low wage labor of Mexico’s maquiladoras (owned by U.S. and other corporations) which NAFTA helped expand, is instrumental in maintaining profitability in the U.S. auto and other industries as well. Thus a cutoff of the parts produced by Mexico’s maquila workers might call into question Trump’s blusterous lies that NAFTA has had a negative influence on the U.S. economy.
Shutting down the border might have brought an inconvenient reality very much to the fore. Instead of a “day without Mexicans” it would be a “day without Mexico”, and contrary to Trump’s intentions, might reveal signs of weakness and vulnerability in the American imperium.
This, of course, is not something the MAGA King wants his loyal subjects to face.
It appears that his only practical card to play at this point is his willingness to persecute the most vulnerable; Central Americans driven from their homelands by the hand of U.S. capitalism.
It is a sobering reality, that while Operation Wetback ultimately failed, it caused enormous suffering. Trump and those who back him, are capable of carrying out something as vicious or more.
Nor has Trump shown any inclination to be restrained by legal precedents. On the contrary he is openly promoting defiance of legal protections for asylum seekers and other immigrants.
It is therefore essential that we rise to the occasion and prevent this from happening.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced Central Americans and others will continue to come to the U.S., altering its demographics in the very way that the xenophobes can’t live with and the system can’t prosper without.
In late June, 2018 a massive mobilization of protest erupted in hundreds of U.S. cities in response to the separation of children from their parents at the border. Such a response is very much needed again!
The nativist anger and dismay that Trump plays on, encourages and amplifies, will contribute to a push for punishment and persecution of immigrants. It’s on us to take a stand in their defense!
Trump has, to some degrees painted himself into a corner on immigration. It is a corner, imperialism finds itself in. But whether he is trapped there, and begins to unravel, or creates further division, chaos, pain, and a further consolidation of a fascistprogram, and a moral hell, really depends on enlightened action of the people. It means not relying on electoral politics; any hope of help from one section or another of the guardians of the profit system will only come by determined action of the people.
There is a real need for outcry, for acting on the truth, for a moral commitment to a broader humanity, for exposing the ugly Trumpian rot in the dark heart of the empire – not only in words, but also in actions! Including actions in the streets!
If not now, when?