News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Operation Wetback: The Romney blueprint for "self-deportation"

When Mitt Romney’s immigration advisor Kris Kobach boasts that 5.5 million “illegals” could be forced out of the U.S. during the first term of a Romney presidency, it is no idle claim. There is a model for “self-deportation” that led to the expulsion of up to 700,000 Mexicans during the mid 1950s: Operation Wetback. This quasi-military nationwide effort launched by the Eisenhower administration in 1954 is a clear example of how the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens can be trampled when hysteria and prejudice reach a fever pitch. The offensive name was only the beginning of its xenophobic nature. 

Operation Wetback

In less than a year Operation Wetback led to the arrest of over 80,000 people of Mexican origin in the U.S. and is credited with forcing the voluntary expulsion of up to 700,000 others. The operation targeted Mexican-American communities in California and Arizona and employed roadblocks along with the cordoning off of entire neighborhoods to indentify “illegal aliens.” Random stops of persons who appeared to be "Mexican" were also employed. These indiscriminate interrogations of people based purely on their ethnicity were organized and fully sanctioned by the federal government. Allegations of widespread harassment and beatings were later supported by lawsuits settled in favor of U.S. citizens victimized during the operation. Many of those detained were released hundreds of miles inside the Mexican border to discourage their return.

The motivation behind the draconian Operation Wetback reflects the bipolar nature of U.S./Mexico labor relations.

After the massive “Mexican Repatriation” during the Great Depression, the entry of the U.S. into WWII brought a new round of labor shortages. Again in need of cheap labor, the U.S. and Mexico entered into the Bracero Program which brought a new wave of Mexican workers to American farms and factories. Although the demand for cheap labor continued after GIs returned from the war, tensions mounted. After complaints of labor law violations by some Bracero workers, a backlash arose claiming that "uncontrolled immigration" by undocumented workers were depressing wages and creating unwarranted employment competition. Thus, Operation Wetback was born.

Will the Romney/Kobach “self-deportation” work today? Not likely, according to a recent study by the Center for American Progress. The study indicates that many of the undocumented today have been in the U.S. for decades and will not easily abandon their strong family ties forged here. The study also cites a lack of opportunities in the migrants’ native countries and the high cost of returning as additional factors against self-deportation. However, this will not likely deter nativists from attempting a repeat of Operation Wetback, making the human costs of such a scheme all the more tragic.

If America could deport the illegal invaders back then, they can sure do it today!” boasts a nativist website in reference to Operation Wetback and the Repatriation of the Great Depression. These incidents and others like the unlawful Japanese interment during WWII, prove that fear and prejudice have often trumped the guaranteed constitutional rights of U.S. minority citizens in the past.

Ironically, nativists are especially fond of invoking  the “rule of law” to justify punitive legislation like Arizona’s SB-1070. Yet the concept of a “rule of law” in the U.S. was created to prevent mob rule from violating the rights of individual citizens. This is exactly the opposite of what occurred with Operation Wetback when U.S. citizens were harassed and arrested purely on the basis of their ethnicity.

The overwhelming majority of the nation’s nearly 50 million Latinos are here legally. Simplistic solutions like Romney/Kobach self-deportation scheme will not just fail, they will very likely antagonize a large portion of the Latino community. That is not a good recipe for domestic tranquility. For proof, one need only look at the ugly side of similar scenarios such as the Chechens in Russia, the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the mother of all ethnic conflict, the Balkans.  

The solution to the presence of some 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. will likely be messy and involve compromise. But the alternative could be something no one except the far-right militias want.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

Encyclopedia of Latino popular culture - Cordelia Candelaria, Peter J. GarcĂ­a, Arturo J. Aldama
Wikipedia – Operation Wetback