How Eisenhower solved illegal border crossings from
Fifty-three years ago, when newly elected Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House,
President Eisenhower cut off this illegal traffic. He did it quickly and decisively with only 1,075 United States Border Patrol agents - less than one-tenth of today's force. The operation is still highly praised among veterans of the Border Patrol.
Although there is little to no record of this operation in Ike's official papers, one piece of historic evidence indicates how he felt. In 1951, Ike wrote a letter to Sen. William Fulbright (D) of
General Eisenhower, who was gearing up for his run for the presidency, said "Amen" to Senator Fulbright's proposal. He then quoted a report in The New York Times, highlighting one paragraph that said: "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."
Years later, the late Herbert Brownell Jr., Eisenhower's first attorney general, said in an interview with this writer that the president had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration when he took office.
Although an on-and-off guest-worker program for Mexicans was operating at the time, farmers and ranchers in the Southwest had become dependent on an additional low-cost, docile, illegal labor force of up to 3 million, mostly Mexican, laborers.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, published by the
Profits from illegal labor led to the kind of corruption that apparently worried Eisenhower. Joseph White, a retired 21-year veteran of the Border Patrol, says that in the early 1950s, some senior
Walt Edwards, who joined the Border Patrol in 1951, tells a similar story. He says: "When we caught illegal aliens on farms and ranches, the farmer or rancher would often call and complain [to officials in
Bill Chambers, who worked for a combined 33 years for the Border Patrol and the then-called US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says politically powerful people are still fueling the flow of illegals.
During the 1950s, however, this "Good Old Boy" system changed under Eisenhower - if only for about 10 years.
In 1954, Ike appointed retired Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing, a former
Influential politicians, including Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D) of
One of Swing's first decisive acts was to transfer certain entrenched immigration officials out of the border area to other regions of the country where their political connections with people such as Senator Johnson would have no effect.
Then on June 17, 1954, what was called "Operation Wetback" began. Because political resistance was lower in
By mid-July, the crackdown extended northward into
By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in
Unlike today, Mexicans caught in the roundup were not simply released at the border, where they could easily reenter the
Tens of thousands more were put aboard two hired ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The ships ferried the aliens from Port
The sea voyage was "a rough trip, and they did not like it," says Don Coppock, who worked his way up from Border Patrolman in 1941 to eventually head the Border Patrol from 1960 to 1973.
Mr. Coppock says he "cannot understand why [President] Bush let [today's] problem get away from him as it has. I guess it was his compassionate conservatism, and trying to please [Mexican President] Vincente Fox."
There are now said to be 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the
Border Patrol vets offer tips on curbing illegal immigration
One day in 1954, Border Patrol agent Walt Edwards picked up a newspaper in
The orders came straight from the top, where the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, had put a former
General Swing's fast-moving campaign soon secured
Several retired Border Patrol agents who took part in the 1950s effort, including Mr. Edwards, say much of what Swing did could be repeated today.
"Some say we cannot send 12 million illegals now in the
Donald Coppock, who headed the Patrol from 1960 to 1973, says that if Swing and Ike were still running immigration enforcement, "they'd be on top of this in a minute."
William Chambers, another '50s veteran, agrees. "They could do a pretty good job" sealing the border.
Edwards says: "When we start enforcing the law, these various businesses are, on their own, going to replace their [illegal] workforce with a legal workforce."
While Congress debates building a fence on the border, these veterans say other actions should have higher priority.
1. End the current practice of taking captured Mexican aliens to the border and releasing them. Instead, deport them deep into
2. Crack down hard on employers who hire illegals. Without jobs, the aliens won't come.
3. End "catch and release" for non-Mexican aliens. It is common for illegal migrants not from
The Patrol veterans say enforcement could also be aided by a legalized guest- worker program that permits Mexicans to register in their country for temporary jobs in the
• John Dillin is former managing editor of the Monitor.