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False Claims of Previous Mass Deportations

Hoover, Truman & Ike: Mass Deporters

Q: Did Eisenhower deport 13 million illegal immigrants? Did Hoover and Truman use mass deportations to open jobs for U.S. citizens?

A: No. Nothing close to 13 million persons were deported during any administration. All three of these presidents wrestled with a rising tide of illegal immigration, but a long-running chain e-mail makes bogus claims about them.

FULL QUESTION

I received this e-mail and want to know if any of it is true and to what extent?

What did Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower have in common? Found it very interesting, but wonder why you never hear any discussion about it?

Three Presidents did it, yet we never hear about it.

What did Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower have in common?

Here is something that should be of great interest for you to pass around. I didn’t know of this until it was pointed out to me.

Back during The Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover ordered the deportation of ALL illegal aliens in order to make jobs available to American citizens that desperately needed work..

Harry Truman deported over two million Illegal’s after WWII to create jobs for returning veterans.

And then again in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower deported 13 million Mexican Nationals! The program was called ‘Operation Wetback’. It was done so WWII and Korean Veterans would have a better chance at jobs. It took 2 Years, but they deported them!

Now….if they could deport the illegal’s back then – they could sure do it today..

FULL ANSWER

This distortion of history has been going around for some time, but has picked up momentum as the immigration debate has heated up again. So we contacted researchers at the Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower libraries to ask if the historical record backs up the claims that these presidents ordered mass deportations. It doesn’t. We also consulted the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and a leading academic historian as well. We got the same answer. This e-mail message is bogus.

The true history of presidential policy toward illegal immigration, and of deportations, is neither as simple nor as successful as claimed.

  • Hoover did not use immigration policy to “create jobs” and never “ordered the deportation of all illegal aliens.” During his four-year presidency, roughly 121,000 persons were officially deported or induced to leave through threat of deportation, according to our analysis of official statistics. (We explain our sources and analytical methods fully in the “Where We Got The Numbers” section below.)
  • Truman did not try to “create jobs for returning veterans” by ordering deportations. In fact, he signed legislation protecting the rights of Mexican migrant laborers recruited legally to help harvest U.S. crops, and was unable to win congressional approval of measures to crack down on employers of illegal immigrants. During his nearly eight years in office, about 3.4 million were deported or left “voluntarily” under threat of deportation.
  • Eisenhower did not deport 13 million Mexicans. Only one-tenth that number was ever claimed by the federal officials in charge of “Operation Wetback,” and even that figure is criticized as inflated by guesswork. Officially, just over 2.1 million were recorded as having been deported or having departed under threat of deportation.

Historian Mae M. Ngai calls the message “a most interesting distortion of history,” and our research backs that up. Ngai, now at Columbia University, told us that “none of these presidents presided over any general deportation campaign.”

So this e-mail’s claim that a president could “sure do it today” — that is, easily deport all the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. — is a conclusion based on false evidence. No relocation effort nearly so large has ever been attempted, let alone accomplished “in two years” as this e-mail states.

Hoover

According to Marian Smith at the USCIS Office of the Historian: “There is no evidence that Herbert Hoover ordered the deportation of all illegal aliens.” And Matthew T. Schaefer, archivist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, told us in an e-mail message: “President Hoover never issued a statement, executive order or proclamation ordering the deportation of all illegal immigrants.”

Hoover took office in 1929, when the very concept of “illegal immigration” was fairly new. For most of its previous history, the U.S. had encouraged immigration and threw up few legal barriers. The first permanent quotas on immigration had been put in place by the Immigration Act of 1924. And even that law did not apply to Mexico, or to any other country in the Western Hemisphere, because the U.S. didn’t want to alienate its neighbors, and needed Mexican laborers to help with the harvest. It did completely exclude immigrants from Asia, however, and set limits on immigration from Europe.

The Hoover administration, then as now, struggled to enforce the law. His labor secretaries worked to deport criminal illegal immigrants and public charges. (The Immigration and Naturalization Service, predecessor to the present-day USCIS, was in the Department of Labor at the time.) But official statistics show that the total number of formal deportations was less than 72,000 during Hoover’s time in office, plus another roughly 49,000 who were recorded as having left “voluntarily” rather than face official deportation proceedings. As nearly as we can gauge from the official record, 121,067 persons were deported or induced to leave during Hoover’s four-year term.

Where We Got The Numbers

We drew these figures from official statistics published by the INS for each fiscal year. The Hoover figures are drawn from table 24A on page 179 of the “Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service” for fiscal year 1952. The historical table details numbers of “Aliens Deported and Aliens Departing Voluntarily Under Proceedings; Years ended June 30, 1892 to 1952.”

The fiscal-year figures don’t match Hoover’s term exactly, because fiscal years ended on June 30 in those years, and Hoover served from March 4, 1929, to March 4, 1933. So we added together totals for fiscal years 1930 through 1932 — the full fiscal years that fell entirely within Hoover’s term, plus pro-rated portions of fiscal year 1929 and 1933. For example, since Hoover was in office for 118 days of fiscal year 1929, we assigned to him 32.3 percent of the fiscal year totals.

For Truman and Eisenhower, we used the corresponding table(Table 23, page 55) from the INS annual report for 1961. We followed the same method for each to pro-rate figures for partial fiscal years. In the latter document “voluntary” departures are described instead as “Aliens required to depart,” a somewhat more accurate term.

The ‘Mexican Repatriation’

It’s true that the years of the Great Depression saw an exodus of many persons of Mexican heritage — including some who were U.S. citizens. A report in USA Today, published in 2006, stated: “Tens of thousands, and possibly more than 400,000, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were pressured — through raids and job denials — to leave the USA during the Depression.” That report echos the findings of a 2006 book, “Decade of betrayal: Mexican repatriation in the 1930s,” by Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez. Those authors described “a frenzy of anti-Mexican hysteria” that included “mass deportation roundups and repatriation drives.”

It is also true that federal immigration officials sometimes used legally dubious tactics in those days. A report to the 1931 Wickersham Commission, taking note of some“objectionable features” of the deportation system, described immigration officials “forcibly detaining groups of people many of whom are aliens lawfully in this country, or even United States citizens, without any warrant of arrest or search.” The report added: “It is often customary for the immigrant inspectors to jail suspects, however apprehended, without a warrant of arrest or any other kind of a warrant.” And it concluded, “The apprehension and examination of supposed aliens are often characterized by methods unconstitutional, tyrannic, and oppressive.”

But it should be noted that it was Hoover who appointed the commission that brought these abuses to light, and that the descriptions of a “Mexican repatriation” during the Depression don’t put the blame exclusively, or even predominately, on federal officials. They also cite actions by state and local officials, “job denials” by private employers, and pressure by labor unions. In fact, historian Ngai told us in an e-mail message that Mexicans who were sent back “were repatriated by local city and county welfare authorities (e.g. Los Angeles, Detroit), not the federal government.”

Hoover archivist Schaefer backed that up in his message to us, saying that Hoover himself did not push for deportation:

Hoover archivist Schaefer: The push for deportation arose locally. Los Angeles and California are probably the best known cases. LA paid transportation costs to ‘encourage’ ‘voluntary repatriation’ succeeding in sending tens of thousands of people back to Mexico in 1930 and 1931.

Hoover thought the very idea of restricting immigration from Mexico was futile, Schaefer said. “Hoover saw quotas for immigrants from the Western Hemisphere as unenforceable, so he opposed efforts to secure such quotas.”

Truman

The claim about Truman is also not supported by the historical record. According to Tammy Kelly, archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.: “We have not found evidence that President Truman deported over two million illegal immigrants to create jobs for Americans.”

Truman struggled with the problem of migrant farm workers — both legal and illegal. On June 3, 1950, he set up a Presidential Commission on Migratory Labor and asked it to look into (among other things) “the extent of illegal migration of foreign workers into the United States” and whether laws could be “strengthened and improved to eliminate such illegal migration.” The commission ultimately recommended that the country should rely primarily on domestic farm workers, not immigrants, to perform farm labor. On July 13, 1951, Truman approved legislation to facilitate the employment of legal migrants to harvest U.S. crops, but also expressed a desire to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico and said additional measures were needed. “These people are coming to our country in phenomenal numbers – and at an increasing rate,” Truman said. “Everyone suffers from the presence of these illegal immigrants in the community.”

But the legislation Truman signed had to do with keeping legal guest workers flowing across the border to harvest U.S. crops. According to Truman archivist Kelly, the new legislation established reception centers to house temporarily legal immigrants from Mexico while the government found employment for them. Truman said in signing it, “We must make sure that contract wages will in fact be paid, that transportation within this country and adequate reception centers for Mexican workers will in fact be provided.” He said it was necessary that the U.S. government “stand behind all contracts and guarantee performance in the future, if any more Mexican citizens are to be legally recruited for work in the United States.”

It’s true that many were deported or induced to return “voluntarily” during the Truman years. We figure, based on the official historical tables, that more than 127,000 were formally deported and more than 3.2 million left voluntarily rather than face deportation — a total of nearly 3.4 million.

But the deportations and quasi-voluntary departures had nothing to do with creating jobs for returning veterans, as claimed in the chain e-mail. As Truman noted in a news conference on Oct. 3, 1946, most returning WWII veterans were quickly absorbed into the booming postwar economy. “Ten million veterans are gainfully employed today, compared with only 2 million at work on V-J Day–a gain of 8 million jobs for veterans in a year,” Truman boasted. He said 900,000 veterans remained unemployed, and that “is still higher than any of us like to see it.” But he drew no connection with illegal immigration.

Truman actually wanted to do more than he was able to stem illegal immigration. He said the bill he signed didn’t go far enough. He said he would ask Congress for stricter sanctions against employers who harbor illegal aliens, and would also seek clear authority for INS inspectors to raid workplaces without search warrants. “Congress did not pass the legislation Truman wanted, however, and the illegal immigration problem was passed onto future generations,” Kelly stated to us via e-mail.

Eisenhower

Truman’s successor pushed harder, presiding over what was officially called “Operation Wetback,” a vigorous, federally led effort to remove illegal Mexican immigrants from the Southwest. (The term “wetback” is a disparaging term applied to Mexicans who swam or waded across the Rio Grande River — and today is considered an ethnic slur.)

But it’s simply not true that “Eisenhower deported 13 million.” The actual number expelled by “Operation Wetback” is no more than one-tenth of that figure, even counting many who were not formally deported at all. “The claim that Eisenhower deported 13 million immigrants must be the result of a typo or some other error,” USCIS historian Smith told us. Since the officially claimed figure was 1.3 million, it is possible that the e-mail’s author simply dropped a decimal point, inflating the figure ten-fold.

The “Handbook of Texas,” sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association, says in its entry on “Operation Wetback” that the number forced to leave is “probably less than 1.3 million”:

Handbook of Texas: The INS claimed as many as 1,300,000, though the number officially apprehended did not come anywhere near this total. The INS estimate rested on the claim that most aliens, fearing apprehension by the government, had voluntarily repatriated themselves before and during the operation. … Many commentators have considered these figure[s] to be exaggerated.

We also contacted the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. Director Karl Weissenbach told us his staff had researched the library’s holdings to determine the veracity of the 13 million claim and could find nothing to support it. Indeed, the staff turned up a report to Cabinet dated Jan. 26, 1955, that suggests a much lower total:

Report to the Cabinet, Jan. 26, 1955: [A] year ago the Border Patrol was faced with the disheartening task of apprenhending and expelling some 3,000 ‘wetbacks’ each day, apprehensions now are running slightly less than 300 daily.

“Operation Wetback” lasted only a few months. It was announced June 9, 1954, and focused initially on California and Arizona. According to the1954 Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service,(page 31) federal officials set up roadblocks and stopped trains at points at some distance north of the border. Some 800 Border Patrol agents, using jeeps, trucks, automobiles and spotter airplanes, used a system described officially as “blocking it off and mopping it up.” Agents quickly expanded the operation to the entire state of California, including industrial areas as well as agricultural areas. By mid-July, 1954, the operation was extended to Texas. And it eventually encompassed “mopping up” activities in northern cities as well, according to the 1955 Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service:

INS, 1955: These activities were followed by mopping up operations in the interior and special mobile force units are continuing to discover illegal aliens who have eluded initial sweeps through such cities as Spokane, Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis, which removed 20,174 illegal Mexican aliens from industrial jobs.

Mexican nationals were shipped back using trucks, buses, planes and ships. According to the Texas State Historical Society, the use of ships was discontinued after some drownings caused a public outcry in Mexico.

Handbook of Texas: Ships were a preferred mode of transport because they carried the illegal workers farther away from the border than did buses, trucks, or trains. The boat lift continued until the drowning of seven deportees who jumped ship from the Mercurio provoked a mutiny and led to a public outcry against the practice in Mexico. Other aliens, particularly those apprehended in the Midwest states, were flown to Brownsville and sent into Mexico from there.

The ‘Problem No Longer Exists’

As we said, the operation lasted only a few months, not the “two years” claimed in the e-mail message. “The operation trailed off in the fall of 1954 as INS funding began to run out,” according to the Texas State Historical Society. Nevertheless, INS officials later claimed the operation had been a complete success and that the U.S.-Mexico border “has been secured.”

INS, 1955: The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists. … [T]his is no longer, as in the past, a problem in border control. The border has been secured.

More than half a century later, history has shown that official claim to be a fantasy, just like nearly all the claims made by this chain e-mail. In fact, about the only true statement in it is that “we never hear about” the events it describes. That’s because they never happened.

— Brooks Jackson

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