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

The Trump administration’s first moves on immigration enforcement represent an unprecedented hard-line position, envisioning thousands of new agents, enlisting local police as immigration enforcers, making virtually anyone a priority for deportation, bypassing immigration courts, and, of course, ordering the construction of the infamous wall along the Mexican border. And then there is the president’s own rhetoric equating immigrants with criminals.

June 1948: Members of the Texas Border Patrol guarding illegal Mexican immigrants captured close to the Mexican border. They will be questioned in the hope they have information leading to the capture of the gangs of murderers who prey on immgrants.,Harry Pennington/Keystone Features/Getty Images

After campaign talk characterizing Mexicans as rapists, this week Trump referred to his immigration policy as a “military operation” against gang members, “drug lords,” and “bad dudes.”

Despite the emotionally charged rollout of these policies, it remains to be seen whether they will be fully implemented; the money and manpower required to do so would be extraordinary. There are parallels between Trump’s efforts and previous U.S. immigration crackdowns, when rhetoric about “criminal aliens,” hyped-up raids, and inflated deportation numbers created what was essentially a “terror campaign” in Mexican immigrant communities, says Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I think it would serve us to do our best to fight back against the scare campaign” promoting Trump’s enforcement operations, she said. “I don’t want to suggest that the terror isn’t real. But we don’t want to inflate it. I don’t want to fulfill Trump’s vision of mass deportation by fueling the panic and fear.”

The Intercept spoke with Hernandez last week about what we can learn from the history of the United States Border Patrol, which she documented in her 2010 book “Migra!” using archival records and recollections from both the U.S. and Mexico. The Border Patrol began with an act of Congress in 1924, just after the passage of legislation that outright banned immigration from Asia and put quotas on many other nationalities. Initially a scattered couple hundred patrolmen, it was responsible for enforcing immigration law at ports of entry and up to 100 miles into the interior of the country. After the 9/11 attacks, the organization became part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the newly created Department of Homeland Security. (Another new DHS entity, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was given responsibility for arrests, detentions, and removals away from the border.) The Border Patrol is now a 20,000-strong force that emblematizes the nation’s obsession with “securing” the U.S.-Mexico border and policing Mexican and Central American communities.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the Border Patrol begin, and how has its authority changed over the years?

The history of the organization is quite a bit more complex than suggested by its mandate. Very early on, the United States Border Patrol focused its resources and its discretionary power upon policing one singular population: unauthorized Mexican immigrants. And that’s really been a consistent practice since 1924.

The early officers didn’t come from the Texas Rangers, they didn’t come from military backgrounds; they were largely unemployed or underemployed and landless white men from the border region. These men take the broad mandate of U.S. immigration law enforcement and make it a narrow practice of policing unsanctioned Mexican immigrants. In the U.S.-Mexico border region in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, if you don’t have land, you don’t have power. And so one way in which these men were able to lift up their own levels of authority and respectability in their hometown communities was by directing the force of U.S. immigration law enforcement against the region’s principal labor force, and that’s Mexican immigrants.

Imagine the power of a young man who came of age in the borderlands and who had been disparaged as white trash in his youth, when he’s able to show up at the gates of a big farmer and say, “Guess what? I’m here to take away your workers.” So it’s this very local politics of race and land and labor that is used to narrow down U.S. immigration law into U.S. immigration practice, with its specific focus on policing Mexican immigrants.

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Today’s Border Patrol, especially through their union, is associated with some of the most hard-line anti-immigration voices. In “Migra!” you show a much more nuanced relationship between officers and border communities. How has that political stance on immigration evolved?

I think that this is a new moment. Thinking about the Border Patrol historically, by and large the officers were not hard-liners. They were people who were looking for a good job, and who found federal employment with a pension and a high wage with the Border Patrol. They then followed the often violent practices established in the 1930s and 1940s by the local guys. [In “Migra!” Hernandez describes revenge killings and gunfights with smugglers that formed Border Patrol lore. In later decades, she writes, officers by and large rejected such raw brutality but substituted other means of coercion.] But they were not rabid anti-immigration officers. There’s something different happening in this political and cultural moment, where the Border Patrol and ICE unions have come out with strong support for some of President Trump’s most extreme measures and orders.

The Trump administration is proposing a massive surge in border enforcement. A drastic increase in the number of agents, big, well-publicized raids — when have we seen this before? And how much does it relate to the reality of what is actually happening at the border?

Let’s talk about Operation Wetback of 1954, something that on the campaign trail President Trump said he was going to resurrect. The way in which Operation Wetback was sold to the U.S. public was that there was a crisis of unlawful Mexican immigration and that what we needed was a mass display of force and deportations to clear out nearly 1 million people and to secure the border from future unlawful entry. And so with that rhetoric, in the summer of 1954 the U.S. Border Patrol launched a series of very well-coordinated and well-publicized raids that fueled panic within immigrant populations and many employers in the borderlands. It gave the sense that there was a mass deportation campaign underway. However, on the ground, mass deportation is not what happened. At most, 250,000 were deported that summer; it was nowhere near the 1 million people that’s been cited by President Trump and by many scholars.

So the summer of 1954 was not a real deportation campaign. It was a terror campaign, and it was actually about legalization. The publicity campaign was a few spectacular raids designed to scare immigrants out of the country. And beneath the radar, without the press following behind, the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] visited with employers in the borderlands, mostly agricultural employers, and insisted that they use a watered-down version of the bracero program to legalize their undocumented workforce — what they called “drying out the wetback.” And the employers did get on board. So what really happened was scare tactics and mass amnesty. What we’re getting today is just the scare tactics. And depending on how Congress funds Trump’s orders and the memos we’re seeing from the Department of Homeland Security, we may get the raids as well.

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.

Last week a leaked memo proposed deploying the National Guard for immigration enforcement. There was once a plan called Operation Cloudburst which contemplated something similar. What happened to that idea?

The year preceding Operation Wetback, the Border Patrol, INS, and President Eisenhower considered deploying the National Guard to round up undocumented Mexican immigrants. They did not follow through on it, because of the ban on using the military within the United States for domestic law enforcement, but what they did was to try to approximate a militarized campaign — so the Border Patrol was able to gain access to military trucks, organize themselves in rapid-response task forces, use planes, trains, trucks, and buses to conduct a series of mass raids during 1954. So using military-style tactics and equipment, but not troops.

You’ve written about how the Border Patrol acted differently when it was a matter of policing migrant laborers — men, primarily — and women and children. You unearthed archives showing how these officers were often uncomfortable with the idea of policing families, especially when they encountered resistance from women. How did the conception of what’s acceptable and moral in immigration enforcement change over time?

Between 1942 and 1965, the U.S. and Mexican governments had a labor program called the bracero program, under which several million Mexican immigrants were able to work legally in the United States. It was limited to rural workers, agricultural laborers, and most importantly, to men. That kind of gender exclusion from the labor program almost guaranteed that women and children would not have access to legal routes of migration. So at the same time as you have the bracero program, you have the rise of unlawful migration by Mexican women and Mexican children, many of whom were coming to accompany men in the bracero program, or simply because they needed work too. You end up with a bifurcated labor system: One is legal and it’s male; and the other is unlawful and it’s female and it’s full of young people.

So during this time period, the Border Patrol would run into large numbers of women crossing the border, and the confrontations that they would have with women and children — who would often fight back, holler or scream or protest their arrest — was something that made the Border Patrol officers very uncomfortable, especially as winter tourists were coming down to the border and watching how they did their work. These were really spectacles of state violence on display at the border, and it was armed officers wrestling with women and children.

And so one of the ways that they reconciled this tension for border officers was that they invested in building a border wall. A large expansion of the border wall happened in the 1940s and 50s, which was in part an effort to push women and children into crossing into the backlands where tourists and community members could not see them. Border Patrol officers could make their arrests out in the desert, or women and children would have to submit to much more dangerous crossings. This is one of the untold histories of the U.S.-Mexico border wall: that it is inflected with gender, and with young people, and the efforts of the U.S. to hide the violence of border enforcement.

And you saw that again with Operation Hold the Line in the early 1990s, when the Border Patrol concentrated its efforts on blockading a particularly busy and visible section of the border. Many people have criticized this strategy as leading to many more migrants dying while attempting to cross the harsh, remote, desert portions of the border.

Yes, do you remember the infamous border crossing signs with the image of a family running, pulling a child behind them? Operation Hold the Line was a response to that dynamic, of Border Patrol agents having to confront impoverished and many times desperate migrants trying to cross in search of work, and that confrontation became embarrassing and untenable. Using an operation like Hold the Line to push all of that into the backlands is a consistent dynamic.

The Department of Homeland Security has also indicated that it will deport even people who are not Mexican citizens to Mexico, and expect Central American asylum applicants to wait in Mexico until they get a hearing. Can you talk about the history of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico on border enforcement, and previous crises in the relationship?

There was a long period of time, certainly right through the 1960s, where the U.S. and Mexican federal governments were largely aligned on the issue of controlling Mexican migration along the border. From the U.S. perspective, yes, employers desperately wanted access to an unfettered labor population, and they hoped Mexicans would face no restrictions on entering and exiting the United States. However, there was another impulse within the United States that worried that Mexicans were racially unfit, unsuitable for citizenship. And that very powerful cohort — what today we might call ethno-nationalists but then were known as nativists — wanted there to be little to no Mexican immigration. And so within this debate between the employers and the nativists we came to a sort of compromise allowing managed Mexican migration to the United States, with a great degree of border control.

From the Mexican government’s perspective, certainly from the 1920s to the 1960s, there was concern that so many Mexican nationals were leaving Mexico and taking their laboring power to the United States at a time when Mexico was trying to reconstitute itself politically, culturally, and economically after the Mexican Revolution. So there were interests within the Mexican federal government and Mexican employers that wanted to see Mexican immigration whenever possible, curbed, in order to keep Mexican labor in Mexico. 

So there’s a long history of periods where the United States and Mexico working together to control Mexican migration. It is quite new to see the Mexican government so vocally opposing U.S. plans for deportations.

There is this precedent of Chinese immigrants during the 1930s. In the United States there was a strong anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment that was actually written into law so that by 1924, all persons of Asian origin were prohibited from entering the United States. There was a similar sentiment in Mexico in the 1930s, and there were a series of riots and massacres that happened. So when it came to the issue of Chinese immigration, the federal governments of the United States and Mexico both did their best to keep Chinese immigrants out of their country, and sometimes that erupted right on the borderline, where you would see U.S. and Mexican agents literally pushing Chinese workers through the fence into one country and out of the other. In terms of Central American immigrants — this is a population that has been vilified in Mexico. We should have no expectation of their being welcomed to await their asylum hearings in Mexico, and we may see conditions that are more akin to what happened to Chinese immigrants on the borderline in the 1930s.

Cora Currier is a journalist with a focus on national security, foreign affairs, and human rights. As a reporting fellow at ProPublica, she covered national security and finance. Her work has been published in Stars and Stripes, The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Al Jazeera America, and many other outlets. Before joining ProPublica, she was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and a lead researcher on several books of history and politics. She lives in California.