"Operation Wetback" and the Racist History of U.S. Immigration Policy

This week we return to our 40-day series on immigration.  In a past blog we looked at how most Chinese immigrants (my maternal side) were excluded from the U.S. between 1882-1943 as part of what were known as the Chinese exclusion laws.  We, the Chinese, were the first ethnic group to be singled out for exclusion from the United States.  After the Chinese, the United States proceeded to recruit other Asian immigrants such as Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos to fill the labor void caused by exclusion.  IMG_0014 In time, these other Asian immigrants became systematically barred from the United States through various laws and diplomatic agreements as well.   Anti-Asian sentiment reached its apex in federal law when The Immigration Act of 1917 was passed.   This law created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” which banned “Asian” immigration to the United States from much of Asia and the Pacific Islands.  This barred zone encompassed a huge mass of territory all the way from Turkey in the west to the Polynesian Islands in the east.  President Wilson tried to veto the law, but the law was so popular that Congress over-rode his veto!

The Immigration Act of 1924 further enshrined these prohibitions against Asian immigrants and expanded restriction to Southern and Eastern Europeans.  The Immigration Act of 1924 was an extension of the “Emergency Quota Act of 1921.”  “Emergency,” as in, “help, we have an ‘emergency’ on hour hands—too many inferior Italians, Russians, Greeks, Hungarians, and Poles are coming to our country.”

The Immigration Act of 1924 severely limited the immigration of people from these less favored nations of Southern and Eastern Europe, and favored immigration from Northern European nations such as Germany and Great Britain.  According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the goal of the 1924 Act was "to preserve the ideal of American [cultural and racial] homogeneity.”  As a side note, the general policy of racist quotas in the U.S. was not overturned until 1965!

All this restriction created fertile ground for wide-scale immigration from Mexico during the early twentieth century.  Who would fill the labor void caused by these racist immigration laws, especially in the Southwest?  Answer:  Mexicans.

It just so happened that as my Asian peeps were being systematically banned from the U.S., my other peeps in Mexico (my dad’s side) were going through a bloody civil war called the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).  The Mexican Revolution was so violent that scholars claimed it took the lives of anywhere from 1.9 to 3.5 million people!

There was a perfect historical fit:  the U.S. needed cheap labor in places like California, Texas, and Arizona, and thousands of Mexicans were looking to flee the violence of the Mexican Revolution and come to the United States.   This all led to what scholars call the Great Mexican Migration. 

The Great Migration gave birth to a huge, somewhat-new (after all, the Southwest was still Mexico in the mid-19th century and thousands of erstwhile Mexicans still lived in the Southwest during the early 20th century) Mexican community scattered throughout the United States.  We did many of the low-wage jobs required by the economy of the Southwest in agriculture, railroads, construction, mining, and factories. By the 1920’s, we made up 3/4 of the workforce of the 6 major western railroads, and ¾ of construction workers and 80 percent of migrant farm workers in Texas.  In California, we represented ¾ of the agricultural work force, and nearly 2/3 of workers in construction, food processing, textiles, automobile and steel production, and utilities industries.

We Mexicans were paid very low wages compared with white workers, even when we did the same jobs.  This is because of something called the “Mexican scale.”  Employers felt justified to pay us less because of our brown skin, and, since the 19th century they had exploited us to keep wages low, break strikes, and weaken labor unions.

Although our cheap labor was initially welcome, that all changed in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression.  American society scape-goated us and blamed us for job losses, the shortage of relief services, and housing congestion.  The American Federation of Labor led the anti-Mexican campaign, and even President Herbert Hoover promoted anti-Mexican public opinion.

This economic scape-goating led to massive, unjust deportations to Mexico. 

From 1930-1935, 345,839 of us Mexicans were repatriated or deported back to Mexico!  In fact, almost 2/3 of Mexicans who came to United States in the 1920’s were sent back to Mexico.  Los Angeles lost 1/3 of its Mexican population.

Tragically, Mexican Americans were not excluded from deportation.  In California, over 80% of the repatriates were U.S. citizens or legal residents of the U.S.!  According to one of my uncles whose family lived through this time period in Pico Rivera, immigration officials even conducted raids in churches!

These unjust deportations broke up many families and thousands of American-born kids were separated from their parents. For the rest of the Great Depression, we lived in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

Fast forward in time a few years to 1942 and World War II.   Because of the extensive war effort which redirected many Americans (including many Mexican Americans) to the military and defense work, the U.S. experienced a labor shortage in agriculture.  Guess who it turned to to fill the labor shortage in agriculture? Mexico!  That’s right, after deporting 2/3 of us less than a decade before, they suddenly threw down the welcome mat again—this time by initiating a temporary guest worker program known as the “Bracero Program.”  As part of this program, nearly 250,000 of us Mexicans were recruited to work for low wages on farms in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest.

Many undocumented workers were also hired by growers.  As the years passed, American farmers encouraged or required “bracero workers” to keep working without renewing their work visas with the U.S. government.  As a consequence, within a decade, undocumented farm workers came to outnumber documented farm workers by a ratio of three to one (Props to UCLA grad student Kim Serrano for filling me in on this in one of her recent papers).

In summer 1954, U.S. immigration policy took yet another schizophrenic turn when President Dwight Eisenhower launched “Operation Wetback.”  That is a sickening name.  Like it’s predecessor program in the 1930’s, Operation Wetback was a mass deportation program.  It was a quasi-military operation spear-headed by the United States Border Patrol, together with the military and city, county, state, and federal authorities.  As part of their massive hunt for undocumented immigrants, they went house-to-house in Mexican-American neighborhoods and checked for papers as part of regular traffic stops.  They probably went door to door just a few blocks down the street from where I live today.

On the first day of Operation Wetback, authorities apprehended 4,800 undocumented immigrants, and thereafter arrested about 1,100 Mexican immigrants a day throughout the summer.   The INS boasted (perhaps exaggerating its “success”) that its racist operation led to the deportation or “voluntary deportation” of more than 1 million Mexicans. Does that “voluntary deportation” sound familiar (yes, that was Mitt Romney’s idea, too)?


The main purpose of this blog post has been to highlight the intense historical racism which has characterized U.S. immigration policy.  Whether it be the mass deportations of the 1930’s, Operation Wetback, or even the mass deportations (1.4 million!) carried out by President Obama over the past four years, the historical pattern has been the same:

Recruit us Mexicans as a cheap, undocumented labor supply when it is necessary to keep the U.S. economy afloat.

 In times of economic difficulty, scapegoat and blame us for taking the jobs of Americans and taking government services (how dare we go see a doctor or educate our children, in addition to working our 60-70 hour work weeks picking your fruits and vegetables, raising your children, cooking your food, maintaining your educational campuses, fixing your lawn, or remodeling your home? We are strong, but we still break down from time to time. We are not brown robots. )  

Then, we get deported by the thousands, and painfully separated from the beautiful families we created after we were recruited to work in the jobs which no one else wanted to do.

Then, because of labor shortages, we get recruited back to the U.S. after a few years to work once again in the jobs no one else wants to do.

Repeat cycle from 1910 to the present. 

This historical pattern constitutes biblical oppression, and it is antithetical to all the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. 

The Bible clearly teaches that when we oppress immigrants in this manner, we are oppressing Jesus Himself.  Conversely, when we love immigrants and treat them humanely, we are actually loving Jesus Himself.   When we “welcome the stranger” (as Matt Soerens and Jenny Hwang have passionately and compassionately written about: http://welcomingthestranger.com/), we are welcoming Jesus Himself.

Jesus articulates this amazing truth in Matthew 25: 31-46:

31 “When the Son of Man (Jesus) comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King (Jesus) will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I (Jesus) was a stranger (immigrant) and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King (Jesus) will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he (Jesus) will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger (immigrant) and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

As Matthew 25 teaches, when we love immigrants, we are loving Jesus.  When we oppress immigrants, we are failing to love Jesus in our midst.  When we exploit undocumented immigrants for their cheap labor and then deport them out of political expediency, we are doing the same to Jesus.

The U.S. has been deporting Jesus for the past 100 years.

Will we continue to do the same?

As followers of Jesus, we, of all people, must take Scripture seriously and sound the loudest clarion cry against the unjust deportation of immigrants in the United States today.  We must break the vicious historical cycle set in motion by racist policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, The Immigration Act of 1924, the mass deportations of the 1930’s, and Operation Wetback.  This is our biblical mandate and calling.

Here’s a way you can get involved: http://welcomingthestranger.com/

Robert Chao Romero