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Trump Invokes 'Operation Wetback' Mass Deportation; Latino Groups Say GOP Is 'Out of Touch'

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During Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate, front-runner Donald Trump explained how his mass deportation proposal is not unprecedented and actually feasible, referencing a program by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s that Trump said was effective in deporting more than 1 million people to Mexico and points south.


“Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” Trump said during the debate in Milwaukee. “‘I like Ike,’ right The expression. ‘I like Ike.’ Moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back.Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.”

Trump did not call the program by its name, known then as “Operation Wetback,” but Trump’s last sentence saying “they never came back” drew a big laugh from the largely Republican audience.

According to historians, “Operation Wetback” involved rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants and packing them into trucks, trains and ships and relocating them to remote locations deep inside Mexico, far beyond the border, where they would have little success in returning to the United States. There are many documented cases where the deportations resulted in deaths from heat stroke when immigrants were simply left in the desert to fend for themselves.

During the 1940s large numbers of Mexicans came to the United States as a result of wartime labor shortages, primarily in agriculture. American men at the time were fighting in World War II, and American women had taken on factory jobs to help the war effort.

As years went on, however, an anti-immigration narrative emerged, with issues of job displacement, criminal activity and welfare dependency outweighing any benefits of migrant labor. To appease the public, Eisenhower in 1954 implemented “Operation Wetback.” The program was touted as a success, with a 1955 report from the Immigration and Naturalization Service stating: “The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists the border has been secured.”

“The Eisenhower mass deportation policy was tragic,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, on NPR Wednesday. “Human rights were violated, people were removed to remote locations without food and water, there were many deaths, sometimes U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin were removed. It was a travesty it was terrible. To say it’s a success story, it’s ridiculous.”

Aguilar, a Republican, is the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush. And, like with many Republicans, the issue of immigration, deportation and amnesty has become a delicate political football.

“It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument,” said Ohio Gov. and GOP candidate John Kasich in response to Trump’s proposal. “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border.”

Among Republicans, there are two primary schools of thought: mass deportation and some sort of a path to citizenship with many qualifiers.

Trump has taken the extreme position that mass deportation is the answer. Prior to mentioning his support for Eisenhower’s program, Trump said he was very happy about a federal appealscourt decision this week that upheld an injunction blocking President Barack Obama’s 2014executive order to give temporary legal status to about5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Trump believes all undocumented immigrants should be deported, regardless of any circumstances such as, for example, if their children were born in the United States.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father emigrated from Cuba, also opposes giving a free pass to undocumented immigrants already established in the United States. “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” he said during the debate. “Every sovereign nation secures its borders, and it is not compassionate to say we’re not going to enforce the laws and we’re going to drive down the wages for millions of hard-working men and women. That is abandoning the working men and women.”

But more moderate GOP candidates, like Kasich, said it is both unrealistic and insensitive to conduct mass deportations across the board.

“If people think that we are going to ship 11 million people who are law-abiding, who are in this country and somehow pick them up at their house and shipthem … to Mexico, think about the families Think about the children,” he said during the debate. “If they have been law-abiding, they pay a penalty. They get to stay. We protect the wall.Anybody else comes over, they go back, but for the 11 million people, come on, folks.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another GOP candidate, said that while some illegal immigrants will have to be deported, it is unrealistic to deport 11 million people. “We are going to have to deport some people otherwise, if you’re not going to enforce your laws, what’s the point of having those laws,” Rubio said following the debate. “Criminals are going to be deported. People that haven’t been here very long are going to be deported. People overstaying visas are going to be deported that’s how you enforce immigration laws.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, currently trailing Rubio in the polls, has taken an even more moderate approach to immigration.

“We were encouraged by listening to Gov. Bush defend immigrants that say, look, you know, we want them to come forward, pay a fine so it’s not amnesty, and then give them a path to legal status,” said Aguilar on NPR.

But despite some more moderate proposals to immigration by a few of the GOP candidates, Latino groups continue to feel the Republican Party “is out of touch” with the U.S. Hispanic community and “caters to corporations, while spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

“We still haven’t heard a solid plan from any Republican candidate on how they would protect our community from deportation and how they would get immigration reform through Congress,” said Pili Tobar, spokesperson for the Latino Victory Project. “At the end of the day it’s still Republican leadership who are blocking reform in Congress for purely political reasons. We need to hear real plans and solutions for the 11 million undocumented people in this country who live in fear.”

Tobar added: “Latinos and the American people need and deserve a higher minimum wage; people are struggling to make ends meet and to provide for their families, yet Republican presidential candidates are catering to corporations and special interests, putting more money in their pockets instead of standing behind our families.”

Republicans desperately need Latino voters to have any chance of winning the presidency in 2016, but their continued anti-Hispanic rhetoric, leaders say, is only serving to push more of these voters away.

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