How Eisenhower Solved Illegal Immigation

The Christian Science Monitor has an intriguing article on how Dwight Eisenhower solved the illegal immigration problem of his day:

In 1954, Ike appointed retired Gen. Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, a former West Point classmate and veteran of the 101st Airborne, as the new INS commissioner.

Influential politicians, including Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D) of Texas and Sen. Pat McCarran (D) of Nevada, favored open borders, and were dead set against strong border enforcement, Brownell said. But General Swing’s close connections to the president shielded him – and the Border Patrol – from meddling by powerful political and corporate interests.

One of Swing’s first decisive acts was to transfer certain entrenched immigration officials out of the border area to other regions of the country where their political connections with people such as Senator Johnson would have no effect.

Then on June 17, 1954, what was called “Operation Wetback” began. Because political resistance was lower in California and Arizona, the roundup of aliens began there. Some 750 agents swept northward through agricultural areas with a goal of 1,000 apprehensions a day. By the end of July, over 50,000 aliens were caught in the two states. Another 488,000, fearing arrest, had fled the country.

Eisenhower’s solution to illegal immigration worked — enforcing the nation’s laws is a perfect viable way of restoring public order. Not only did Eisenhower significantly reduce the economic impact that illegal immigration has, he made it more difficult for deported illegals to return by ensuring that they were deported well inside Mexico rather than merely shunted across the border where the opportunity costs for a second crossing were significantly lower.

Such a plan would be quite doable today, even though it would also face significant political opposition. Even Eisenhower did allow for a “guest worker” program which allowed Mexican citizens to hold temporary worker permits for a fixed amount of time. A similar political compromise could work today.

This country is a nation of laws, and it should be seen as widely unacceptable that our nation’s immigration laws are largely unenforced. If Mexican nationals want to come to America for opportunities they can’t seek at home (which is a problem all to itself), then they should do so under a clear legal framework. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a political consensus in either party to take anything other than cosmetic steps towards enforcing the nation’s borders. Multiculturalists on the left don’t like the idea of enforcement any more the economic interests on the right do. Until that changes, the situation is likely to fester.

Eisenhower was able to accomplish five decades ago what our policymakers have so far been unable to do — and perhaps now is a good time for Congress to open their history books and take a look at a model for what a successful solution to our immigration quandary look like.