Power  /  Q&A

The Long History of Deportation Scare Tactics at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The precedents for Trump’s hyped-up immigration crackdown.
Border patrol guarding a group of men sitting on the ground.
Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

I want to be very clear and precise on one thing — Operation Wetback was not about all undocumented immigrants. It targeted Mexican immigrants. It was a specifically racial campaign. When we summon Operation Wetback, we are summoning a racial history, and we have to be very clear about what is happening through that kind of dog whistle.

You write about how the Border Patrol made an intentional change in the language it used to describe immigrants. One regional supervisor in 1956 issued a directive saying that they wanted to avoid “a picture in the minds of the public and the courts of a poor, emaciated, Mexican worker,” and replace it with “criminal alien” or “border violator,” conjuring “criminals, often vicious in type,” and “hardened and defiant.” How was the Border Patrol involved in turning immigration enforcement into a criminal issue?

Operation Wetback was followed up by a change in the logic of why we do immigration law enforcement. The logic was: We had mass deportations, we cleared out a lot of the so-called bad hombres, the bad guys, and now we’re going to focus on the criminal alien. The Border Patrol changed the language of what they do and why they do it. Leading up to 1954, they had been policing unsanctioned laborers, primarily. After 1954, they made a very conscious shift to policing the so-called “criminal alien.” They found very few of them — that is, immigrants convicted of a crime — and yet they insisted on using this language to create a new logic for why the Border Patrol has invested so many of its resources on policing unsanctioned migration in the borderlands.

There’s a lot of resonance with what is happening now. As many people know, President Obama deported more people than any president in U.S. history. There has been a ramping up of deportation in the last eight years, which used the language of the criminal alien, but in a more limited way. We now are seeing an expansion of the notion of the criminal alien to include all persons that have been not just convicted but charged or simply suspected of any kind of crime, including any misdemeanor, or simply unlawful entry into the United States.