July 15th, 1954

Federal Government Targets Southwestern Mexican Communities for Deportation

At the direction of United States Attorney General Herbert Brownell and under the supervision of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Joseph Swing, the United States Border Patrol began the second phase of an immigration law enforcement initiative in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas on July 15, 1954. The program was officially called “Operation Wetback”; the pejorative term “wetback” referred to Mexican citizens who entered the United States by swimming across the Rio Grande River.

The operation first began against Mexican immigrants in California and Arizona one month earlier. It was born of Brownell’s belief that “the Mexican wetback problem was becoming increasingly serious" because Mexican immigrants were “displacing domestic workers, affecting work conditions, spreading disease, and contributing to crime rates.” INS deployed hundreds of border patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley to locate and deport to Mexico anyone they suspected of being illegally present in the United States. The following September, INS initiated a similar operation in the Midwest.

Border agents' tactics included descending on Mexican American neighborhoods, demanding identification from “Mexican-looking” citizens on the street, invading private homes in the middle of the night, and raiding Mexican businesses. Agents often seized and deported those lawfully in the country without a hearing or oversight.

By the end of these crusades in California, Arizona, and Texas, as many as 200,000 Mexican immigrants had returned to Mexico, some on their own, but most under border patrol escort. According to some reports, INS had deported one million Mexican immigrants nationwide by the year’s end. These mandatory deportations were done at the deportee’s expense and cost some people all the money they had earned while working in the United States.

At the program’s close, Brownell praised it as successful, swift, and skillful, yet humane and fair.