AP/LM Otero

When Donald Trump spoke admiringly this week of a 1950s deportation program known at the time as Operation Wetback, pundits on both the left and right were immediately critical. Even Bill O'Reilly of Fox News confronted the Republican candidate by saying, "That was brutal what they did to those people." Brutal doesn't even begin to describe it.

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Trump has repeatedly avoided using the program's slur of a name. But he cited it during Tuesday night's debate as an example of how he would deport millions of undocumented immigrants:

Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him. “I like Ike,” right? The expression. “I like Ike.” Moved a million and a half 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. Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer. You don’t get friendlier. They moved a million and a half out. We have no choice. We have no choice.

Historian Mae M. Ngai has written that the program was conceived and carried out as though it were a full-on "military operation." Eisenhower, himself the country's most famous military leader, hired another Army general, Joseph Swing, to head the U.S. Bureau of Immigration & Naturalization. At the time, they were trying to get businesses to participate in a struggling guest-worker-type program and believed that the supply of undocumented labor was undermining their efforts.  

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Eisenhower may have also been motivated by his own dubious beliefs about the cultural impact of undocumented people. According to one account, Eisenhower sent Sen. William Fulbright the following quote from a New York Times article in an exchange about political corruption: "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government." Swing also had questionable beliefs about the impact of immigration, referring to undocumented immigration from Mexico as “an actual invasion of the United States.”

The operation amounted to a capture mission, with at least 750 immigration and border patrol officers using an armada of more than “300 jeeps, cars and buses” as well as seven airplanes. Agents traveled as far north as Idaho and Washington to arrest, detain and deport undocumented people.

But the cruelty didn’t stop after the detainees were forcibly moved out of the country. The strategy Swing had devised to keep people from returning to the United States was to transport detainees deep into the heart of Mexico, as far as 500 miles south of the U.S. border. They achieved this in large part by sending tens of thousands of people down the Mexican coast on two chartered ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The Justice Department described a voyage on the Mercurio as “a delightful Caribbean cruise,” but a congressional investigation rebutted that characterization, likening the vessel to “an eighteenth century slave ship" and a "penal hell ship." One report found that passengers were crammed together in 6-square-foot rooms, and were given drinking water that “by almost any standard is not potable.” Passengers jumped overboard, several to their deaths, while Swing argued for exemptions from U.S. safety regulations on the grounds that the voyages constituted a “defense emergency.”

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Ground transportation wasn’t any better. Hundreds of immigrants were rounded up and dumped in areas with severe living conditions. In one incident, 88 people died of heat stroke after being abandoned in a desert near Mexicali. According to Ngai, even more would have perished in the 112-degree heat had the Red Cross not intervened.