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Opinion: Sorry Trump, “Operation Wetback” Was a National Disgrace

During Tuesday night's debate, when asked the feasibility of his idea to institute mass deportations of the undocumented, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump was ready with an answer.

"Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him. I liked him. I Like Ike, right?" Then Trump explained Ike moved "1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country - moved 'em waaaay south, they never came back." Adding that you don't get "nicer" than Ike, he said that when it comes to our immigration issues, "We have no choice. We. Have. No. Choice."

As eager as he was to invoke Eisenhower's program, Trump failed to mention its name: "Operation Wetback." He also failed to mention that it was one of the most shameful moments in U.S./Mexico history. Operation Wetback represented the violation of human and civil rights on a wide scale, and researchers consider the success of this program to be exaggerated.

Trump Explains Deportation Plan Will Be 'Humanely Done' 1:48

The historical context of "Operation Wetback" is revealing. The program was initiated by Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., who was known for telling officers to shoot any "wetbacks" caught trying to cross the border, and then implemented by Eisenhower in the 1950s.

Although Trump glibly describes "Operation Wetback" as moving undocumented immigrants "waaay south," this program was at best inhumane and at worst horrific. Back then, the government rounded up suspected undocumented immigrants and sent them deep into the Mexican interior, where they were abandoned with next to nothing. The transports across the border were reportedly "indescribable scenes of human misery and tragedy." In one instance, 88 deportees died from heat stroke in the desert. Other deportees were sent to the Mexican Gulf Coast by ship, in vessels described by historians as an "eighteenth century slave ship" or "penal hell ship." As Rolling Stone Magazine noted, "nearly a million human beings were terrorized by our government and treated with less dignity than farm animals."

Among these so-called "wetbacks" were the U.S-born children of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who were mistakenly caught up in government sweeps. Border patrol officers also shaved the heads of suspected undocumented immigrants, ostensibly so that they could identify them if they attempted to return; in reality, a humiliating violation of their human rights.

Trump omits a few key facts when discussing "Operation Wetback." It cut down the size of our undocumented population, in part, because it was accompanied by the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program allowed thousands of Mexicans to enter the country as guest workers and live here legally on temporary visas (Among them was Jeb Bush's father-in-law Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez, who became a bracero in 1960). One UCLA professor says that the government's aggressive border enforcement measures were just as responsible for reducing the size of our undocumented population, so the success of "Operation Wetback" remains open to debate. And how could such a program ever work in 2015, when we have 11 million undocumented people among us, 62 percent of whom have been here for more than a decade?

Last night was not the first time that Trump - currently Public Enemy No. 1 among Latinos - has praised Eisenhower's deeply flawed program. Trump mentioned "Operation Wetback" in a September interview with 60 Minutes Overtime as well. When Scott Pelley prodded him with "There is something called civil rights," Trump responded, "There's also something called, 'We have a country."

Perhaps such a dismissive attitude towards human suffering and civil rights is to be expected coming from Trump. Maybe this is just his latest line of inflammatory speech. But it is still shocking to hear his dangerous rhetoric from center stage at a debate watched by millions.

Trump is right about one thing: We do have a country. We have a country where all people - not specifically citizens - are considered equal. We have a country moving towards full inclusion and civil rights for all. We have a country with values anathema to the xenophobia that inspired "Operation Wetback."

Trump's idea to revive "Operation Wetback" should offend all Americans. It bespeaks an appalling lack of compassion as well as a profound ignorance of history.

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