Just when you think that Donald Trump couldn't sink lower, he does—this time during last night's debate when he touted Dwight Eisenhower's Operation Wetback as a model for dealing with America's undocumented population.
This operation ranks among the darkest chapters in 20th-century American history along with the 1920 Palmer Raids (when in the heyday of the Red Scare the Justice Department tried to round up foreign nationals, dissident leaders, and anarchists and deport them) and FDR's World War II Japanese internment (when the federal government confiscated the homes and property of 100,000 Japanese Americans and put them away in camps lest one of them turn out to be a traitor).
It involved a massive mobilization of the police state with patrol officers rounding up and dumping one million Mexicans in the most obscure areas from where they would have a hard time returning. Carried out in peak summer months when temperatures touched 125 degrees, the mass deportation program resulted in nearly a hundred deaths from heat stroke — not to mention massive abuses of human rights.
Trump wants to scale up this program more than 10-fold to deport 11 million Latinos. But he says he'll do it "humanely" because he's a "very nice" person. How you send SWAT teams to "humanely" separate families is anyone's guess. The terror that this will strike in Latino communities will dwarf anything experienced by Japanese Americans. But will it succeed in diminishing the undocumented population over time?
Not according to the Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh. He points out that the evidence and statements by border patrol and INS officials in the 1950s and afterward suggest that mobilizing the border police state did not reduce unauthorized immigration, legal migration did in the 1950s when the so-called Barcero Program was deregulated.
During the early, more regulated, and thus restricted phase of the program, he notes, unauthorized immigrants continued to cross the border which resulted in almost two million of them living in the United States by the early 1950s. In 1946, the year after the war ended, an INS report recorded a massive increase in unauthorized entries that was "riddling the country of aliens illegally in the United States" with more illegal entries than any previous year. Government reports described the large increase in unauthorized immigration after World War II as "virtually an invasion." He writes:
The government responded to the increased illegal immigration with two interrelated and coordinated actions. The first and more important action (to say nothing of its humanity), was a legal reform and expansion of the Bracero guest worker visa program in 1951. The second was called Operation Wetback, a nasty immigration enforcement operation begun in 1954 (it expanded on earlier program) that altogether removed almost two million unauthorized Mexicans in 1953-1954.
What Mr. Trump and other supporters of harsh enforcement actions like Operation Wetback won't tell you is that increased enforcement was combined with an increase in legal migration opportunities. Many of the migrants rounded up in the enforcement buildup to Operation Wetback were legalized on the spot, a long-standing process derogatively referred to as "drying out" illegal migrant workers, and given a bracero work visa. "Drying out" was not invented during Operation Wetback; it had been common practice beginning in 1947 and was made law in 1951. Although data is sparse on the number of unlawful migrants who underwent "drying out," in 1950, 96,239 migrant workers were legalized in that process and the Department of Labor actually gave preference to legalizing unlawful migrants over admitting new braceros.
Other unlawful migrants were driven down the border and made to take one step across the border and come back in as a legal bracero worker, a process referred to as "a walk-around statute." The combination of a legal migration pathway with consequences for breaking immigration laws incentivized Mexican migrants to come legally. As a result, the number of removals in 1955 was barely three percent of the previous year's numbers. Those who previously would have entered unlawfully instead signed up to become braceros, which was the intended purpose of the reforms.
The government did not tolerate unlawful entry but the INS made it very easy for migrants to get a guest worker visa and used the Border Patrol to funnel unauthorized migrants and potential unauthorized migrants into the legal system – sometimes simplifying the system beyond what Congress intended. Increased lawful migration, flexibility, and enforcement funneled migrant workers into the bracero Program and reduced unauthorized immigration by an estimated 90 percent. The existence of a legal visa for lower skilled Mexican migrants was essential to the decrease in unlawful immigration.
May be when Trump says he'll deport 11 million people and then let them return, he has in mind something like the "drying out" policies described above. But that can't happen without a guest worker program with Mexico. And if you enact such a program, then deportations become a mere formality, an abusive redundancy, that only someone who cares neither about the size nor scope of government—nor taxpayer dollars nor human rights abuses, for that matter—would recommend. But setting that aside, Trump has said not a word about creating such a program—likely because that'll cause him to lose the white, nativist, working class support he's courting. In other words, the straight-talker is being just as cagey as the rest of them.
But while we are on the subject of Trump's cageyness, consider this: He insists that he'll make Mexico pay for the Great Wall of Trump—and Make America Great Again—through the country's $50 billion-plus trade imbalance with the United States. It is not clear what the hell he means by this, but the only way this makes any sense is if Trump thinks that the imbalance represents excess payment for things we've purchased from Mexico that America can withhold. But that is emphatically not what a trade imbalance is. It means that we have bought more goods from Mexico than sold to them. (I have a 100 percent trade imbalance with my grocery store because I only buy goods from it and never sell it any thing.) Thus, applying the imbalance toward the wall would mean buying goods from Mexico without paying for them. (If H&R readers have any other way of interpreting Trump's remarks, please speak up.)
Now, this is apparently a standard business practice with Trump as his vendors will tell you. But does he seriously think that Mexican businesses will continue to send goods to Americans knowing that their government will confiscate payment? Odds are, the Mexican government will retaliate on behalf of its businesses and withhold payment to American businesses, unleashing a full-blown balance-of-payment war. A Trump presidency will mean returning to the days when countries thought that the way to get rich was by beggaring the other through extractive wars—not through peaceful trade and voluntary exchange.
Trump is a moral neanderthal wrapped in a crazy mind. That he's drawing the allegiance of a quarter if the GOP base suggests that American exceptionalism— the notion that the American people have a special relationship with Lady Liberty, as I wrote once—is not what it used to be. If he gets elected, that relationship will be dead.