Feedback
News

In Invoking ‘Operation Wetback,’ Trump Dredges Painful Past

Trump under fire after suggesting ‘deportation force’ 2:25

AUSTIN, Texas -- When Donald Trump praised the Eisenhower administration’s forced expulsions of a million people of Mexican descent as a model of deportation policy that can work again, Danny Camacho couldn’t help but cackle.

“If you’re using that as an example of success and humane, well, what happened? Why are we back where we started,” Camacho told NBC News. A retired food services worker and history buff whose Mexican American roots in Texas date to the 1850s, Camacho chalked up Trump’s comments as “just another outrageous statement” intended to fan the flames among those opposed to illegal immigration.

The 1950s mass deportations operation which Trump hailed was known as Operation Wetback, the name taken from the pejorative for undocumented immigrants. According to the Texas Historical Association:

“(Operation Wetback) was a national reaction against illegal immigration, began in Texas in mid-July 1954. Headed by the commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service, Gen. Joseph May Swing, the United States Border Patrol, aided by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, as well as the military, began a quasi-military operation of search and seizure of all unauthorized immigrants.”

Operation Wetback was hardly humane. According to published histories, it ripped apart families, and even U.S. citizens of Mexican descent with deep roots in this country were caught up in the web and wrongly deported. Some who were apprehended were transported to Mexico via cargo vessels likened to 18th-century slave ships. Thousands of others were dumped in the desert, left to fend for themselves without food or water. Many died of heat stroke.

Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants is a cornerstone of his presidential campaign and at Tuesday’s Republican debate, he invoked Operation Wetback to counter criticism that the plan is a non-starter. In the public outcry that followed, Trump doubled down on his assertion that mass deportations can be done humanely.

Trump didn’t actually mention “Operation Wetback” by name.

“He was smart enough not to,” said Luis Plascencia, an Arizona-based scholar and an expert on Mexican migration, Mexico-U.S. borderlands and citizenship.

Related Article: Eisenhower's Deportation Program's 1 Million Figure Called Into Question

But while Trump’s reference to the 1950s operation may have been obscure to some, it was not in Texas, where Operation Wetback began and where many consider it a shameful episode in U.S. history. Trump’s endorsement ripped the scabs off old wounds and left some Tejanos shaking their heads.

“The reality is it was not humanely done back then,” said Gus Garcia, the 81-year-old former mayor of Austin. Garcia grew up in Zapata in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where Operation Wetback started, eventually spreading to the Southwest and other states.

In invoking Operation Wetback, Trump inadvertently dredged up another painful past for Mexicans and Mexican Americans. With a history dating back more than a hundred years, “wetback” is an ugly epithet similar to use of the n-word for African Americans, said Plascencia who has researched the language historically used to refer to Mexicans who come to the United States illegally.

In the early to mid-1900s, “wetback” was used to describe Mexicans who swam across the Rio Grande to avoid border checkpoints. Garcia, the former Austin mayor, said the term was meant to be demeaning. “It is a slur,” he told NBC News.

Plascencia said “wetback” is like many of the terms in the immigration debate lexicon. “It allows you to distance yourself,” said Plascencia, “and it allows you to think of them differently. They’re not like you. That’s how these labels surface.”

Around the time Operation Wetback was in full force, “wetback” began to be used to disparage not only undocumented immigrants but also U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. In Texas, discrimination against people of Mexican descent was common, and the term wetback became another weapon.

Garcia said he was called a wetback many times. So was Moses Saldaña Sr., an 81-year-old Austin resident.

As a young boy, Saldaña shined shoes at local cantinas. “There was a gang of white guys,” said Saldaña, “who came along and asked us, ‘What are you wetbacks doing here? Why don’t you go back to Mexico?’”

Because he was an American citizen, Saldaña said he wasn’t bothered by the term then, though he remembers getting into fights over it.

It’s different today. When he hears the slur now, he says, “I feel that they’re speaking of our parents and our relatives who came from Mexico to work and to support themselves and their families,” Saldaña said. “That term is very offensive.”

Follow NBC News Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.