Noelia Sanchez was born in the rolling farmlands of southwest Missouri, where her Mexican parents worked as seasonal farm workers in the 1950s.
When she was one year old, Noelia and her mother Aurora, who did not have working papers, were arrested with dozens of other immigrants in a Texas town near the border. The American-born child and her mother were forced to travel to Mexico with hundreds of thousands of others.
Their expulsions were part of a U.S. government effort known in official newspapers and media outlets as “Operation Wetback.” The term “Wetback”, used to describe Mexicans who swam or waded across the Rio Grande, is considered a racial slur. .
Donald Trump praised Eisenhower-era raids without using their name since he first ran for president and is now promising voters he would launch the nation’s largest deportation operation in American history, extending beyond the 1950s. It intensified his verbal attacks on immigrants as he seeks a second term, he has twice told supporters in recent weeks that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
Those affected by “Operation Wetback” and immigration historians say Trump is using bits of history and rhetoric for political reasons while ignoring his own administration’s failure to carry out mass deportations, even as she separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border and enacted drastic restrictions. on asylum.
“Families have been divided by poorly implemented immigration policies and discriminatory immigration policies specifically aimed at indigenous people, Mexican Americans and Latinos,” said Joaquin Sanchez, Noelia’s son, who is now an immigration lawyer in Chicago. “These are the types of policies my family has witnessed for generations. »
“Operation Wetback” coincided with a guest worker program that granted legal status to hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers, largely Mexican. Noelia Sanchez, born in Missouri, and her mother were able to obtain their papers in about a year and return to settle in Chicago.
The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched a military-style campaign in the summer of 1954 aimed at deporting Mexican immigrants who were in the country illegally. The operation followed several other deportation efforts in the 1940s and 1950s.
Researchers disputed the figure of 1 million arrests reported in the summer operation, saying they had included figures from previous years and that the number for this entire year was actually much lower, at around 250 000.
The government has used scare tactics to get people to self-deport so they can have another chance to return to the United States.
Experts pointed out that it was no coincidence that the deportation campaign occurred as farmers were looking for guest workers under the Bracero program launched in the 1940s, aimed at allowing Mexican farm workers to enter the country and work legally in the United States. The program excluded women and children, pushing some families to enter the country illegally to stay together.
Adam Goodman, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in his book “The Deportation Machine” that organizations such as the ACLU contacted authorities in immigration from Chicago and ultimately advised immigrants who were in the country illegally to return to Mexico. These groups sent a press release along with a pamphlet to every newspaper in Illinois to give more publicity to the eviction campaign.
“This was a terrorist campaign designed to frighten the people of the country,” said Kelly Lytle Hernández, a professor of history at UCLA. “This was in reality a public relations campaign designed to terrorize communities into self-eviction. »
Hernández said the administration would gather a significant number of people, disseminate the information and announce that they were going to other cities. “It is not possible that the United States has this force to influence such a number of deportations. »
Trump often calls immigration dangerous in his speeches, suggesting that people crossing the border are criminals trying to invade the United States and bring disease.
Speaking in Ankeny, Iowa, in September, he said: “Following Eisenhower’s model, we will conduct the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” »
He invoked the same operation in 2015, during his first candidacy for the presidency.
But his administration did not deport millions of people during his four years in office, as he promised before and after becoming president. Just like in the 1950s, the U.S. government was limited in the number of deportations it could carry out at one time.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Trump administration illegally expelled about a third as many illegal immigrants from within the country during its first four fiscal years as President Barack Obama’s administration did during the same period. .
Enforcement operations require months of planning, and arresting an immigrant can often require days of surveillance. Agents generally do not carry search warrants, and advocates warn immigrants not to open their doors. Under the Trump administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has often struggled to find adequate detention space, and people can fight their deportation cases for months or even years.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for information on why his administration has not come close to deporting millions of people and how a second term would carry out a one-year effort. such scale.
The Trump administration was more hostile to immigration than any administration in decades. Trump blocked people from seeking asylum at the southwest border, separated children from their families and built a border wall in environmentally sensitive areas.
Extremism advocates and experts have noted that its language echoes Hitler’s writings on the “purity” of Aryan blood, which Nazi Germany used to justify the murder of millions of Jews during World War II. .
Well into his term in 2019, Trump announced on Twitter that he would deport millions of people the day before he launched his re-election campaign.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, criticized Trump for his record on immigration during the latest GOP debate.
“He said in 2016 that he would have the largest deportation program in history. He deported less than Barack Obama did when Barack Obama was president,” he said. “Some of the policies he ran on in ’16, I encouraged him at the time, but he didn’t implement them.”
Both DeSantis and Trump have held up the Eisenhower program as a model. Several candidates in the field have mentioned the use of deadly force at the border or the sending of American soldiers to Mexico.
Joaquin Sanchez’s grandmother, now 92, still lives in Chicago, in a house she owns a few blocks from a temporary shelter offered for newly arrived migrants.
“Grandma laughs at her own experience because she was able to come back to her now and watch her children,” he said. “She’s had an incredible trajectory.”