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The issue of illegal immigration from Mexico continued to be a political issues as Dwight Eisenhower became president following the 1952 election. It was also a concern for the government of Mexico, whose President, Porfirio Díaz, was disturbed by the number of laborers who were leaving his country for the United States, helping to industrialize and expand the economy of his neighbor to the north instead of the Mexican economy. Mexico was a supplier of abundant, cheap labor, and Diaz wanted it to be used to modernize his own country's economy and develop Mexico's industrial agribusiness. The large and growing agricultural industry in the United States created a demand for labor and from the 1920s onward (with the exception of the depression era), Mexicans provided much of the labor needed for a large segment of the agricultural industry in the United States, especially in the Southwest. Every year, 62,000 workers entered the United States legally, and well over 100,000 more illegally. Mexican business owners pressured their government to find ways to keep these laborers in Mexico. The situation grew so bad that crops would rot in Mexican fields because so many laborers had crossed into the U.S. where they could make more money. American agriculture, which was also transitioning to large-scale farming operations, continued to recruit illegal Mexican laborers to fulfill its growing labor requirements.

During World War II, Mexican and American governments developed an agreement known as the Bracero program, which allowed Mexican laborers to work in the United States under short-term contracts in exchange for stricter border security and the return of illegal Mexican immigrants to Mexico. As an alternative to providing military support to the U.S and the allies, Mexico provided laborers to the U.S. with the understanding that border security and illegal labor restrictions would be tightened by the United States. The United States needed cheap labor to support its agricultural businesses, while it was fighting the war. The program began on September 27, 1942, when the first Mexican laborers were admitted into the United States under this agreement. The program called for the laborers to be guaranteed wages, housing, food, and exemption from military service.

After this agreement was reached, the Mexican government pressured the United States to strengthen its border security, because they wanted these laborers to return home to work on Mexican farms and businesses. Problems arose from the program as it had the unintended consequence of creating excessive illegal immigration into the United States, to the dismay of both nations.

American growers continued to recruit and hire illegal laborers to meet their labor needs. But these employers were unconcerned about whether or not immigration quotas were followed or whether the workers returned home. Many who were denied entry legally, crossed illegally into the United States in search of better wages and opportunity. The Mexican Constitution allowed citizens to cross borders freely with valid labor contracts, foreign labor contracts could not be made in the United States until an individual had first legally entered the country. This conflict, combined with literacy exams and INS fees only served to encourage illegal entry into the United States.

The problem worsened as food shortages became more common in Mexico. Hunger, government corruption and misgovernment, and population growth all combined to motivate many Mexicans to attempt to enter the United States, legally or illegally, in search of wages and a better life. The Mexican government's business-unfriendly attitude created more problems for those looking for employment in Mexico, providing yet another reason for Mexicans to enter the United States in search of higher paying jobs.

The growing concern about unassimilated immigrants, along with the security issues resulting from illegal border crossings, led to public pressure on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to do something about the problem. The INS increased its raids beginning in the early 1950s, and in 1954, Dwight Eisenhower's Attorney-General, Herbert Brownell, authorized a project known by the pejorative name of "Operation Wetback". Fear of communist infiltration that existed at the time also prompted tighter border security.

Previously, in 1943, more United States Border Control Officers were posted along Mexico's northern border, because of problems with the bracero program. The Mexican government met in Mexico City with four agencies of the United States government: the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the INS, and the Border Patrol. This meeting resulted in increased border patrol along the United States—Mexico border by the United States. Nonetheless, illegal immigration persisted. Although there were more deportations, the deported Mexicans soon reentered the United States. To combat this, the Mexican and American governments developed a strategy in 1945 to deport Mexicans deeper into Mexican territory by a system of planes, boats, and trains.

In 1954, negotiations surrounding the bracero program broke down, prompting the Mexican government to send 5000 troops to its border with the United States. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed General Joseph Swing as INS Commissioner and charged him with resolving border control issues in order to stabilize labor negotiations with Mexico. Working with the Attorney-General, General Swing and the INS began "Operation Wetback", a system of tactical control and cooperation within the U.S. Border Patrol and alongside the Mexican government. Planning was led by General Swing and the program was formally announced in May 1954. On May 17, command teams of 12 Border Patrol agents, buses, planes, and temporary processing stations began locating, processing, and deporting Mexicans who had illegally entered the United States. A total of 750 immigration and border patrol officers and investigators; 300 jeeps, cars and buses; and seven airplanes were allocated for the operation. Planes were able to coordinate with ground efforts and quickly deport people into Mexico. Those deported were handed off to Mexican officials, who in turn moved them into central Mexico where there were said to be labor opportunities available. The operation's main targets were border areas in Texas and California.

There were 1,078,168 apprehensions made in the first year of Operation Wetback, with 170,000 being rounded up from May to July 1954. In addition, many illegal immigrants fled to Mexico fearing arrest, reportedly over half a million from Texas alone. The total number of apprehensions would decline to 242,608 in 1955, and would continuously decline by year until 1962. Despite the decline in apprehensions, the total number of Border Patrol agents more than doubled to 1,692 by 1962, and an additional plane was also added to the force.

During the entirety of the Operation, border recruitment of illegal workers by American growers continued due largely to the low cost of illegal labor, and because growers wanted to avoid the bureaucratic obstacles of the Bracero program. Illegal immigration continued despite the efforts of the program.

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The name "wetback" came from a disparaging term the INS officers used to describe illegal entrants who tried to enter the U.S. by swimming the Rio Grande. The program was criticized because the deportees were sent to unfamiliar parts of Mexico, where they would struggle to find their way home or to continue to support their families. Many were deported without receiving the opportunity to recover their property in the United States, or to contact their families. They were often stranded without any food or employment when they were released in Mexico. 88 deported workers died in the 112 °F (44 °C) heat in July 1955 due to neglect by the Mexican government. U.S. Border Patrol agents sometimes shaved the heads of those they arrested to identify potential repeat offenders who would attempt to reenter the United States. There were also reports of beating and jailing chronically offending illegal immigrants before deporting them. There were over 11,000 formal complaints from documented bracero workers from 1954 through 1964.


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