When the Senate’s amnesty bill met its inglorious end on June 28, the American people dodged a bullet. With amnesty legislation now off the table, it is time to get serious about border control and enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws. Maybe we can learn something from the way President Eisenhower handled the same problem in 1953, when he moved into the White House.
Eisenhower was faced with a porous border that saw a million illegal aliens apprehended in 1951, and the total number of illegal aliens in the country was estimated to be above 3 million.
The “Bracero” program brought legal agricultural workers to the Southwest from Mexico beginning in 1942, when the region faced a genuine labor shortage due to World War II. But by 1953, the program had deteriorated into a corrupt system for importing cheap labor for Texas and California employers. The contract laborers had by then discovered that they could leave the farms and make equal or better wages in Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix. Sound familiar? The sheep ranchers of Colorado and Wyoming make the same complaint about the contract sheep herders they bring from Peru and Portugal.
In 1950, President Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor in Texas reported that cotton growers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley paid wages that were about half the farm wages paid elsewhere in the state. But when immigration agents rounded up illegal workers in the region, employers complained and pulled strings to end the roundups. Again, this sounds all too familiar.
Eisenhower inherited the mess and decided to act. He told his attorney general, who supervised the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Border Patrol, that he wanted the Bracero program ended and the border secured. In 1954, Eisenhower appointed a West Point classmate, “Jumping Joe” Swing, as head of the INS. One of Commissioner Swing’s first acts was to transfer a number of old-time Border Patrol managers out of the border areas to disrupt the cozy relationships with local employers and politicians.
During a two-month period, June and July of 1954, a force of less than 800 INS agents rounded up and repatriated more than 50,000 illegal aliens in California and Arizona. The agency estimated at the time that more than 400,000 fled back to Mexico in fear of deportation. From July to the end of September, more than 80,000 were arrested in Texas and more than 500,000 left Texas voluntarily by the end of the year. Today, the bureaucrats call that “self-deportation,” but I prefer to call it returning home. In fact, going home might be considerably easier today for the millions of illegal aliens have Bank of America credit cards.
Unquestionably, mass roundups and removals would be far more difficult politically in 2007 than they were in 1954. We now have 15 million or more illegal aliens instead of only 3 million and they occupy jobs in many sectors of the economy besides agriculture. The INS and Border Patrol sweeps under Eisenhower were confined largely to the four Southwest border states, whereas today the problem has spread across the nation. Yet, however effective roundups of illegal aliens at worksites may be, that is not the only way to encourage illegal aliens to return home.
The real lesson we need to take from the Eisenhower era is not the specific methods employed in the 1954 mass roundups but the resolve to tackle the problem head on.
Once Eisenhower ordered the federal government to get serious about immigration law enforcement, about one-third of the illegal aliens “self-deported” within a year. In that period, almost 10 times as many illegal aliens went home voluntarily as were deported by INS.
In truth, the specter of “mass deportations” is a bogeyman used to ridicule the very idea of aggressive enforcement of our immigration laws. If we ever again have a president with Eisenhower’s courage, he won’t have to use that weapon. All he will have to do is to signal that our open borders are closed and our immigration laws will actually be enforced.
But Congress need not wait for that caliber of presidential leadership; Congress can act. The American people want Congress to appropriate the funds to build the border fence, build the Border Patrol to 20,000 officers, deport all criminal aliens expeditiously and enforce our existing worksite laws. When we do that — when the message is crystal clear that the border will be secure, that jobs will vanish and criminal activity will be punished — we will see a rapid reduction in the size of the illegal alien population without resort to mass roundups.
The exodus southward will also mean that Mexico will see an increase in political pressure to fix its own economic problems.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, is founder of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and its former chairman.