What President Trump can learn from Ike on Mexico

Eisenhower did it.

That was candidate Donald Trump’s argument for suggesting mass deportations of undocumented Mexican immigrants from the United States. 

According to President Trump, “Eisenhower ‘moved immigrants just beyond the border; they came back. Moved them again beyond the border; they came back. Didn't like it. Moved them way south; they never came back.’”


Though President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE didn’t mention it by name, what he was referring to was a 1954 program called Operation Wetback. The term “wetback” was used to describe Mexicans who immigrated illegally into the United States by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande. Under Operation Wetback, the United States detained undocumented immigrants across the country and sent them deep into Mexico via trains and cargo boats, making it harder to return.


But President Trump forgets – or more likely doesn’t know – that Operation Wetback was largely about generating the optics of a tough enforcement action while pushing growers to hire workers legally under a federal initiative known as the Bracero program, which granted visas for seasonal work.

And yet, President Trump doubled down on his mass deportation pledge in his recent address to Congress, and we’re increasingly hearing stories of ramped-up detentions of undocumented immigrants. The soldier who’s served two tours in Afghanistan. The father of four who was detained immediately after dropping his daughter off at school.  The grandmother who is the backbone of her family.

History suggests that if President Trump replicates the deportations of Operation Wetback, the results will not only be inhumane but prove economically counterproductive.

I know first-hand about Mexico and the Eisenhower era of the early 50s. In 1951, inspired by the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I impulsively left my studies on the G.I. Bill at Georgetown University and moved to Mexico to prospect for gold. I never found gold, but I did find manganese – which became the foundation of my global minerals business.

On one trip to scout for ore in southern Mexico, I got my car stuck in a creek. When a truck full of Mexican migrant workers returning from Texas rolled by, I thought I’d lucked out.  But Texans were notorious for treating workers cruelly, and my car had Texas plates. Though I didn’t speak much Spanish, it was clear what the workers were discussing: whether or not to kill me.

After explaining to their foreman using broken Spanish and hand signals that I was actually from far north of Texas – Philadelphia – the conversation took a welcome turn, from killing me to pulling me out of the creek. The men even refused payment for their help.

In those early days I spent so much time in the field, I began to know many of the locals from the small villages. They nicknamed me “El Gringo Mojado,” joking that I was the only American to swim the wrong way across the Rio Grande. It was a term of endearment that still makes me smile.

The logic of those who support deportations today is much the same as what I saw and heard in the 1950s: if we could keep out immigrants who will work for cheaper wages, there would be a greater supply of jobs available for Americans at higher wages. President Trump's advisor Stephen Miller echoed this claim in a Bloomberg interview, saying that “it makes little sense to bring in massive numbers of workers to compete at the low end of the labor scale. . . to have the effect of replacing those workers or driving down their wages.”

Here’s the problem: historical evidence just doesn’t support that argument. The first major deportations under Herbert Hoover were cruel and haphazard attempts to expel anyone with a Mexican-sounding name – including some U.S. citizens – to open up more jobs.

When it became clear that the United States actually needed Mexicans for seasonal work, Franklin Roosevelt created the bracero program, an initiative to bring in Mexicans legally as guest workers during the harvest season. It lasted until 1964, brought down by concerns about the treatment of the workers and the impact on agricultural jobs for Americans. But as a team of economic researchers led by the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens found, “excluding the Mexican braceros did not affect the wages or employment of U.S. farmworkers.”

President George W. Bush argued it best when he said in his 2005 State of the Union address that “it is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists.”

As an alternative to mass deportation, President Trump should consider a comprehensive new guest worker program similar to the bracero program but that could work in combination with strengthened border security measures that make it harder and costlier for growers to hire undocumented immigrants. A tough new border security program could help President Trump save enough face with his base followers to try more practical ideas and give his administration a “stick” to urge growers and would-be immigrants alike to embrace the “carrot” of a guest worker program.

When those Mexican migrant workers saw me stuck in that creek, I was mostly concerned with getting home alive. But there’s a broader lesson in this story. Just like my encounter with those workers, there are two different paths that our relationship with Mexico could take: insecurity fueled by resentment and mistreatment, or cooperation founded on communication and mutual respect.

It’s not too late for President Trump to choose the path of common sense and cooperation. But that time is rapidly approaching.

Stanley A. Weiss is a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security. His recently published memoir, "Being Dead is Bad for Business,” is available in bookstores around the United States and online here.

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