Thursday, November 10, 2011

From The Bracero Program to "Operation Wetback": Changing Attitudes Toward Mexican Immigrants

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

"The relationship between Mexican immigrants and the United States has been characterized by periods of alternating cycles of hospitality and antagonism. The changing nature of the economy and the political climate affected which of these cycles confronted the newly arrived Mexican immigrants."

--Alma M. Garcia, The Mexican Americans

In researching the history of Orange County, I have noticed wild fluctuations in how Mexican immigrants have been received. During the Great Depression, when white people needed jobs, hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans were illegally deported, or as president Hoover put it, "repatriated" back to Mexico. This historical reality is documented in tragic detail in the book Decade of Betrayal, by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez.

During World War II, with American servicemen overseas, American companies needed labor, so they looked to Mexico again. The U.S. Government, in conjunction with big business, put together the "Bracero Program." (Bracero is Spanish for 'hired hand'). So, when we needed them, Mexicans were again welcomed into the Untied States, as a source of labor.

These workers were instrumental in keeping the war economy going. In Orange County Through Four Centuries, Leo J. Friis writes, "On February 11, 1943, representatives of 41 of the 45 orange packing houses of the county met at the Anaheim Elks Clubhouse where the committee presented a plan to import seasonal workers from Mexico." And that's what they did. Under the "Bracero Program" thousands, perhaps millions, of immigrants from Mexico were welcomed to the United States.

But what about when the "real" (i.e. white) Americans returned home from the war and wanted jobs? Enter "Operation Wetback" of 1954. I wish I was making this up, but I am not.

In her fascinating book The Mexican Americans, Alma M. Garcia writes, "The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) developed 'Operation Wetback' in an effort to reverse the tide of 'illegal aliens' from Mexico. In June 1954, the INS began a program to deport undocumented Mexicans living in the United States, specifically in the Southwest. The Border Patrol employed questionable paramilitary tactics in rounding up Mexicans and deporting them back to Mexico."

I wish that, in current debates about immigration (legal or illegal), people had more of a knowledge of history, and more than anything, human compassion.

The current exhibit at Hibbleton Gallery focuses on the struggles today of undocumented students to get an education, The Dream Act, and the controversy surrouneding it. Shameless plug:

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