Clinton Promise to Curb Illegal Immigration Recalls Eisenhower's Border Crackdowns

Operation Wetback's methods were effective, but might not pass court challenge today

PRESIDENT Clinton vows to slam the door on illegal immigrants, including Mideast terrorists and Chinese smugglers trying to enter the United States, but can he do it?

Four decades ago, another president - Dwight Eisenhower - was confronted by a similar crisis. America's southern frontier with Mexico was out of control. Some high-ranking government officials were urging Ike to use the US Army to seal the border.

Herbert Brownell, who was Mr. Eisenhower's attorney general, says the nation "was faced with a breakdown in law enforcement on a very large scale. When I say large scale, I mean hundreds of thousands were coming in from Mexico without any restraint."

Many immigrants, mostly Mexicans, were making their way north to take factory jobs in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and other cities, while others labored on farms and ranches, or worked on construction projects, mostly in Texas, Arizona, and California. Support in high places

Making the problem worse: Powerful politicians, including Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D) of Texas and Sen. Pat McCarran (D) of Nevada, favored open borders. They did the bidding of influential vested interests, such as ranchers and growers, who wanted cheap, docile immigrant labor to pick their crops and tend their herds.

Mr. Brownell, interviewed here recently, credits Eisenhower for his support of a daring plan to stem the flow. Within two years, the US Border Patrol had virtually halted illegal immigration across the entire 2,000-mile US-Mexico frontier.

Brownell says a similar plan might work today. However, immigration officials in Washington disagree. They say court decisions have so expanded rights for illegal aliens in recent years that sweeping roundups would be difficult, if not impossible.

The Brownell plan, dubbed "Operation Wetback," outraged many businessmen and ranchers, especially in Texas. It brought a rain of abuse on Brownell and Eisenhower from some ethnic groups. But for many years, it also produced a new level of stability in the Southwestern border area.

Instrumental to their success was Eisenhower's recruitment of a former classmate at West Point, retired Gen. Joseph Swing.

At Ike's urging, General Swing agreed to head the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and to oversee the operation.

Brownell praises Swing for a series of strategic moves. Among other things, Swing won the cooperation of Mexican mayors near the border to expedite the deportation of thousands of Mexicans. "Nobody had ever thought of doing that," Brownell says. Mexican officials hoped their returning nationals would help boost their nation's economy.

Swing also took three other significant steps.

* First, he brought semimilitary discipline to the demoralized US Border Patrol. He reorganized the command structure, got new equipment, and fitted them out in smart, forest-green uniforms. He also cut down on mistreatment of aliens by promptly transferring guilty officers to the Canadian border.

* Second, he approved the use of a new tactic, the Mobile Task Force, to clamp down on illegal entrants in the worst problem areas. Although expensive, the force proved extremely effective.

* Third, he arranged to deport Mexicans to areas far from the US, rather than just turning them loose at the border, as had been done.

Swing also carefully orchestrated press coverage of Operation Wetback as if he were entering a military campaign. Selective secrecy about the number of agents in the task force and tactics to be used made the government's efforts look even bigger and more threatening than they really were.

The results were dramatic. Even before the crackdown began in California on June 10, 1954, some illegal aliens began fleeing the US. Then on June 17, the task force of 750 agents began a systematic sweep of agricultural areas of California and Arizona. Apprehensions exceeded goal

The sweep moved steadily northward. The goal was 1,000 apprehensions a day, but quickly exceeded that. By June 20, some agents were already checking the region as far north as Sacramento.

The INS estimates that by the end of July, less than two months after the operation began, 51,784 aliens had been apprehended in California and Arizona, while another 488,000 had voluntarily left those states for Mexico.

Swing's efforts to get cooperation from Mexican authorities paid off. With their help, illegals bused to the border were met there by specially chartered trains, which carried them deep into the interior of Mexico. From there, it would be much harder to work their way back to the US border.

Next, Swing turned to Texas, where local resistance to his efforts was much greater. Operation Wetback was moving ahead full speed in Texas by July 15, with 4,800 men taken into custody on the first day.

Within a week, one official reported that at three crossing points along the border, 45,033 illegals had been counted fleeing to Mexico. Program triggers backlash

Local farmers and ranchers, who had scoffed at Swing's program, suddenly were forced to hire local people or legally imported labor to work their farms and ranches. Criticism rained on Swing. One local editorial in the San Benito (Texas) News grumbled: "How about putting the 700-800 invading Border Patrolmen into the cotton fields, picking?"

Eventually, Swing even employed ships to carry aliens from Texas and California ports back to Mexico. The boatlift stopped only in 1956 when a mutiny aboard one ship resulted in the drowning of seven men who tried to escape by going overboard.

Official records indicate that the success of Swing, Brownell, and Eisenhower was numerically impressive. Illegal immigration dropped an estimated 97 percent by the end of Eisenhower's term.

Yet the program was sharply criticized. Milton Plumb, a labor representative writing in the CIO News at the time, called the operation "brutal." He saw several flaws:

* It heightened anti-US feelings among Mexicans.

* It brought a dehumanizing, military mentality to the Border Patrol.

* It encouraged a new, more sinister type of illegal entry "involving misuse of tourist cards and entry permits, forged passports, and phony birth certificates."

* It led to a breakdown of laws protecting immigrant Mexican workers, including illegals, under the US minimum-wage laws.

Officials today doubt that Mr. Clinton would succeed with a similar strategy. Duke Austin, an official with the INS, says court decisions and new federal laws preclude the kind of wholesale roundup that marked Operation Wetback.

Today's illegal immigrants can demand a hearing, or request political asylum, and the Border Patrol's hands are tied - sometimes for years. Mr. Austin notes one recent case of an Irish woman who entered the US with a visitor's visa and, with legal appeals, stalled deportation for 12 years.

Nor can the Border Patrol go into open fields to seize farm workers as they once did. Congress took away that authority in 1986. Western growers still have significant political clout.

Eisenhower's efforts to stem illegal immigration were rapidly reversed when John F. Kennedy took over the White House in 1960. Mr. Kennedy's vice president, you will recall, was Lyndon Johnson of Texas.

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