This Time We Fight Back


Phoenix, February 2017: A protestor ties himself to an ICE van in an effort to prevent the deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos.

On February 17, the AP reported the existence of an 11-page Department of Homeland Security memo outlining the possible use of 100,000 National Guard troops in immigration raids. The story first met a denial from the White House, followed by the subsequent admission from ICE that the memo was circulated but will not be implemented. In its place, ICE released new policy guidelines foretelling an equally draconian future.

Darkness is coming. It has descended on immigrant communities before. We survived. We shall again.

Operation Repatriation

In 1930, one year into the Great Depression, with unemployment soaring, Wall Street panicked. Fortunes had been lost and the ruling class needed a scapegoat. The Hoover administration launched Operation Repatriation, whose goal was the deportation of 500,000 “foreigners”: Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike. At the time, Border Patrol numbered 781 agents, and even with the 275 additional agents pledged by President Hoover, the task was far too great. The administration launched a program of local participation to identify, detain, and assist in the deportation of the undocumented. It was an early precursor of what President George W. Bush would codify in the 287(g) section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which deputizes state and local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents.

With the commencement of Operation Repatriation, it was not long before hysteria and xenophobia reached toxic levels. In Los Angeles for example, the chairman of the local repatriation committee, Charles Visel, proposed a newspaper campaign to “scarehead” the Mexicans into self-deporting and saving the time and expense of legally questionable procedures. In modern deportation parlance, the term “voluntary departure” is used to describe the option to leave detention and self-deport available to immigrants detained in mostly private prisons while they await judicial procedures. The phrase was invented in the 30s to support the fiction that only criminal aliens were being deported, while the family that followed chose to leave voluntarily.  

For those who chose to stay, Visel launched nationally publicized raids. What is now the quaint tourist attraction Placita Olvera across the road from Union Square was in 1930 the epicenter of the Mexican community. Visel launched a coordinated operation with local and federal law enforcement that surrounded the Mexican barrio and forcibly removed the “foreigners.”

The atrocities were not reserved for big cities. In Miami, Arizona my own family, citizens all but one, was forcibly removed. In Miami the local committee was the Gila County Welfare Association. As the name implies it was formed to dole out assistance to the families of unemployed miners. Under Operation Repatriation it evolved into a quasi police force coordinating dragnets that led to detention and deportation.

The number deported or voluntarily departed is unknown. Little effort was made at maintaining precise records. The leading scholars on Repatriation estimate between 500,000 and 2 million “foreigners” were removed. Of course, Operation Repatriation ended neither unemployment nor the Great Depression.

The story of the next wave of hate, hysteria, and xenophobia to seize this country is much more convoluted. Rather than simply blaming Mexicans for an economic downturn, it involves trickery, deception, arguably brilliant political strategy, self-loathing, mutiny, and death.

Braceros and “Wetbacks”

The Great Depression ebbed toward its end as the threat of war became dangerously real and the country begin its military build-up in earnest. It soon became obvious that war plans could by stymied by a major labor shortage. The response was the Bracero Program. An agreement was signed by the United States and Mexico to import temporary workers, primarily for farming and railroad construction. Before it was over, 4,395,000 braceros had entered the United States.

The program quickly became riven with corruption and abuse. Organized labor, then a major political force, became a constant critic of the program, while religious groups and the Latino labor leadership also raised their voices to argue that the braceros were being treated like chattel. Juan Ramón Garcia, the leading scholar of the Bracero era, quotes a farmer saying “we used to buy our slaves now we rent them from the government.”

The other major critics of the program, for entirely different reasons, were the leading Mexican American civil rights organizations. From the late 1940s through the early 60s, organizations like the League of Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum contended that the path to acceptance and equality for Mexican Americans was Americanization and total assimilation. Continued Mexican immigration threatened the transformation of Mexicans into Americans of Mexican descent and ultimately Americans without qualification. George I. Sanchez, the dean of Mexican American scholars, author of a history of Mexican Americans entitled Forgotten People,and a director of the League of Latin American Citizens told Time magazine:

No careful distinctions are made between illegal aliens and local citizens of Mexican descent. They are lumped together as “Mexicans” and the characteristics that are observed among the wetbacks are by extension assigned to the local people…from a cultural standpoint the influx of a million or more wetbacks a year transforms the Spanish-speaking people of the southwest from an ethnic group which might be assimilated with reasonable facility into what I call a call a culturally indigestible peninsula of Mexico. The “wet” migration has set the whole assimilation process back at least 20 years.

The American G.I. Forum, organized by war veterans with the mission to fight discrimination against Mexican Americans, went even further. They published a pamphlet in 1954, What Price Wetbacks, that argued that illegal immigration brought poverty, sickness, and low educational achievement, but it extended its opposition even further. The Forum argued that this country’s greatest enemies, Communists, were infiltrating this country masked as Mexican immigrants — a charge echoed in the hateful hyperbole directed at “Muslim terrorists” today.

The terms “bracero’ and “wetback” were used interchangeably in the 1950s. The obsession that Mexican American civil rights organizations had with being accepted as white had historical roots. After the Mexican American War, only “white” Mexicans were allowed citizenship. Braceros and wetbacks were decidedly not “white”. Braceros far outnumbered “wetbacks” who crossed the border illegally while the program was in effect but they both presented the same threat. They both replenished the Mexicaness of the of the Americans of Mexican descent and as Sanchez said “set the whole assimilation process back 20 years.”

In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower was faced with a controversial decision. The Bracero program was expiring and farmers across America were demanding its extension, along with new amendments providing for an orderly flow of workers. Organized labor, religious groups, LULAC, and the American G.I. Forum were adamantly opposed; as were nativist and racist organizations. Southern and western congressional delegations prevailed and apparently persuaded the President that he should extend the program. But the blowback from racists, organized labor and self-loathing Mexican American leaders continued, demanding a brilliant political strategy. It was called Operation Wetback.

Even as the Eisenhower administration extended the program and allowed the importation of hundreds of thousands more braceros, he launched a war against immigrants. It would not be prosecuted by the military, but it would be completely military in character. He named his West Point roommate General Jack Swing to lead it. Swing immediately named two retired generals as his assistants. On June 17, 1954 two convoys left Yuma. One headed east into Arizona, the other west to California. Governors were asked to dedicate local law enforcement to the dragnets that quickly followed. Within weeks, agents of the Operation were seizing Mexicans throughout the southwest. Swing adopted the “scareheading” tactics of the Hoover era and claimed that even before the first convoy left Yuma, 63,000 illegals in Texas had fled the state and that in California the number was so great “it was impossible to count them.”

Operation Wetback came to tragic end. U.S. ships had been commissioned to transport deportees from Port Isabel, Texas to Vera Cruz, Mexico. In September 1956, a riot broke out on one of these ships, protesting the conditions of its human cargo. Seven men drowned and others were reportedly killed on board. Ultimately the deportees seized control and a mutinous crew brought the ship into port. The Mexican press, notoriously controlled by the government, would not be contained. The scandal that followed forced the Mexican government to cancel the bilateral agreement that governed the deportations. In the end General Swing claimed that 1.3 million persons were deported. Some scholars place the number significantly higher.

The response of the Mexican American community through these excesses of hate and xenophobia was most notably fear, cowering, and collusion. Darkness came and there was only compliance.

Darkness Falls Again

The Generals have returned. It should be remembered that General Swing first prepared an explicitly militarized approach to mass deportation. Like Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, General John Kelly, today, he ultimately thought better of deploying soldiers in battle armor to prowl the streets in search of Mexicans. Kelly’s new plans, now officially adopted, are as dangerous as Wetback or Repatriation. The so-called force multiplier, 287(g), is back. Thousands of local police will be deputized to enforce immigration laws. The limitations imposed in Obama’s last term on whom could be detained and deported have been rescinded. The definition of who is considered a criminal has been broadly widened to include even those who have been charged but not yet convicted, and more significantly anyone thought to have “committed acts which constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” The numbers eligible for expedited removal will be greatly increased. Children who arrived as “unaccompanied minors” are no longer protected from deportation; and if it can be proved that their parents paid for the journey north — a common scenario — they are subject to criminal prosecution. The list of expanded categories now subject to deportation goes on. Virtually any undocumented person can be picked up at any moment anywhere.

In the Washington Post, columnist Greg Sargent makes that “anywhere” very clear, pointing out that the Kelly memorandum, with very few written exceptions, declares that “all existing” Homeland Security “memoranda or field guidance” regarding enforcement “are hereby immediately rescinded.”

One of the rescinded memoranda is the “sensitive locations” memo. It prohibits any ICE action at “schools, hospitals and places of worship, without express consent from agency supervisors, and must be exercised with excessive care.” The specter of jack-booted ICE agents raiding elementary and high schools, community colleges, and universities to haul out kids is terrifying; though Sargent quotes a DHS official saying that won’t happen. Days before the memo was officially revoked, however, a woman was picked up in a courthouse moments after receiving protection from her abusive husband. ICE denied she had been detained inside the courthouse until video recordings proved otherwise. In Denver, a group of men stepped out of a church-operated shelter and ICE agents surrounded them and took them away. In Phoenix, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother of two U.S. citizen children, reported to ICE offices in compliance with the conditions of her bail. She was deported within 24 hours. Restraint is not characteristic of ICE. Expect scores of kids to be hauled out of schools around the country. After all, they are there for the taking.

Dreamers, the young folks who are recipients of the protections provided by the Obama executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, are unmentioned in the Kelly memoranda. They are protected for now. It is only their parents who will be deported.

This Time We Fight Back

What is so tragically missing from the history of Operations Repatriation and Wetback is any form of resistance. Yes, there was an elaborate scheme by the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter workers and the Asociacion Nacional Mexico Americana to ferret away their members and their families into the hills surrounding mining towns in Arizona, but otherwise the militarized convoys barreled through Mexican barrios without protest. In both cases, the government of Mexico colluded with the nativists that were demonizing Mexicans.

That was then and this is now. Now we will not tolerate collusion nor silence. The non-profit immigration reform industrial complex, that network of D.C.-based organizations that have fashioned themselves comfortable sinecures for two decades, should step aside. This moment does not demand their talent for compromise and accommodation. “Comprehensive immigration reform,” the holy grail that they have sought since the Reagan administration, is an unmistakably dead letter. What they can do is redirect the fruits of their ingenious aptitude for fundraising away from themselves and to those on the ground who can mobilize the community into sustained and unyielding resistance. National organizations that have built a network of organizers throughout the United States, proven to possess the courage of their convictions, understand the danger of their work, are occasionally jailed and inspire others to join them. Mi Gente, under the leadership of Marisa Franco, is such an organization. On the local level, there is Puente in Phoenix, Organized Communities Against Deportation in Chicago, the Nation Day Labor Organizing Network in Los Angeles, and many others across America.

The battle that awaits us won’t be waged in the hallways of Congress. It will be waged in the streets. What those on the ground understand is that we do not go into this fight alone. The Trump administration has placed the Latinx community in imminent danger. But it has targeted many others as well: Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, Native Americans, and black people all face renewed attacks. At one of the dozens of airport protests that spontaneously and beautifully broke out across America against Trump's first travel ban, I saw a friend whom I had never seen at a demonstration before. I asked her “what brought you here?” she answered “because this ban is so dammed un-American!” What Mi Gente and the others on the ground understand is how to build coalitions. We must sustain each other through the long darkness that we face.

Mexico finally has an opportunity to redeem itself for betraying its people. Operations Repatriation and Wetback could only take place because Mexico entered into agreements allowing its nationals to be herded into railroad cars, forced into surplus boats, pushed into the back of trucks, and dumped across the border, often penniless and hopeless. Millions were abandoned. International agreements require that every deportee to Mexico must be certified by the Mexican Consulate at the point of exit. If Mexico were to simply stop certifying deportations, they would cease. Period. If Mexico announced it would continue non-certification until Trump’s decrees were rescinded, talks would surely resume on a more respectful level than that from which Trump has made his pronouncements thus far. A bill currently in the Mexican Senate would reduce Mexican imports of U.S. corn to zero over three years. It has not yet been endorsed by the current administration, but the political pressure in Mexico from common citizens to stand up to the “colossus of the north” is immense. Midwestern Americans will quickly learn the price of Trump’s rhetoric if Mexico finally recaptures its dignity.

When Trump descended the escalator to launch his campaign, the first object of his hate was Mexicans. In the gathering of demons that populate Trump’s mind, Mexicans play a central role. Perhaps he believes that, as in the past, we will go quietly and passively. We will not. This time we fight back.

Alfredo Gutierrez helped found the national Chicano student organization MEChA. He was elected to the Arizona State Senate at the age of twenty-five and served as both Majority and Minority Leader. After losing his bid for Governor of Arizona in 2002, he began hosting a popular radio show and is also the Editor of He is the author of To Sin Against Hope: How America Has Failed Its Immigrants