Republican Presidential candidates Donald Trump takes interviews in the spin room after the debate held by Fox Business Network for the top 2016 U.S. Republican candidates in Milwaukee, Wis., Nov. 10, 2015. 
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Trump praised it without naming it: What was ‘Operation Wetback’?

Updated

On Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate Donald Trump spoke of President Eisenhower moving more than one million “illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them way south.” Donald Trump did not mention it by name, but he was describing the 1950s program Operation Wetback.

To begin, some definitional groundwork — what is a “wetback”? The term, considered a slur, was first used in reference to Mexican migrants who would swim across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas. Immigrants who did not cross through the ports of entry would many times opt to instead swim across the river, hence the reference to “wet” or mojado in Spanish. Even though the act of swimming across a river is only relevant to the Texas region of the border, the term became popular in the mid-20th Century.

Now, for a little historical context. By the early 1950s there was a growing number of immigrants who lacked legal status, referred to as “wetbacks” in the American Southwest. Large number of Mexicans started coming in the early 1940s as part of the Bracero Program. The Bracero program started in 1942 as a result of wartime labor shortages — men were fighting in WWII and women were in the factories so the United States developed an agreement with Mexico to fill labor shortages in the fields.

Once the war ended the increased demand for agricultural products from the Southwest did not stop but only increased. Southwestern agricultural interests relied on Mexican farm labor. Agribusiness was perfectly content with the large inflows of Mexican migration — legal or not.

At the same time public discontent with illegal immigration was bubbling. Issues of job displacement were front and center. The anti-immigration narrative expanded to issues of criminal activity, public health risks and welfare dependency. As in the past, Labor became a prominent voice for stemming the flow of immigration. In 1954 the American Federation of Labor’s Executive Council decided to give “unceasing publicity” to the “wetback problem.”

Congress attempted to address the problem by instituting employer-sanctions penalizing the growers that hired non-Bracero workers. The legislation got nowhere. Frustrated by Congress’ inaction President Eisenhower decided to address the public discontent with illegal immigration through the Executive Branch, namely through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

In 1954 Ike named retired General Joseph M. Swing to head the INS with the purpose of implementing a military-style campaign to round up and deport unauthorized Mexican immigrants. Operation Wetback — through the work of the Border Patrol, military, and local authorities — seized and deported people en masse. Dragnet style raids took place across the Southwest as well as in Midwestern cities such as Chicago.

In addition to its quasi-military tactics, Operation Wetback was notable for its repatriation of Mexican migrants to the interior of Mexico. The idea was to discourage reentry by shipping unauthorized immigrants either by train, boat, or bus far beyond the border.

It is estimated that over a million people were deported, including cases where citizens were rounded up too.

Masse repatriation indeed occurred. But part of the million-plus number includes estimates of Mexican immigrants who voluntarily repatriated themselves during the operation fearing the dragnet apprehension. At the same time INS agents got creative. Agents would allow apprehended “wetbacks” to remain as legal Bracero workers, a process referred to as “drying out.”

From a media relations perspective, Operation Wetback was a success. The optics of the large-scale apprehensions were powerful. A 1955 INS report declared that “the so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists … the border has been secured.” Public discontent was largely appeased.

But from a policy perspective, Operation Wetback failed. Soon after, migration from Mexico into the United States picked back up. The core demand of Mexican labor was never addressed. As a result, Operation Wetback was a setback in a larger migratory flow that essentially leads us to our current immigration context.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto is a political scientist and commentator. She is a professor at the University of Texas and previously served on the faculty of Northwestern University. She received her PhD from Duke University.

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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Trump praised it without naming it: What was 'Operation Wetback'?

Updated