Esteban Torres was 3 years old when his father was sent back to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities.
“One day, my father didn’t come home,” remembers Torres, who lived with his family in a mining camp in Arizona at the time. “My brother and I were left without a father. We never saw him again.”
Torres, 85, who went on to become a congressman representing the Pico Rivera area, was part of a generation of people whose lives were changed dramatically by large-scale deportation campaigns during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s in which millions of Mexican nationals were rounded up and sent across the border on buses, trains and ships.
“They moved 1.5 million out,” Trump said, responding to rivals who said his plan would not work. “Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him,” achieved it, he said.
The record, however, portrays a darker and more complicated picture, suggesting that a mass deportation effort many times larger than any conducted before would be much harder than Trump indicates.
The Eisenhower-era operation deported closer to 300,000 people, according to historians, and was accompanied by scores of deaths and shattered families. In some cases, U.S. citizens were apprehended and deported alongside unauthorized immigrants. Raids were concentrated in border communities but stretched as far north as St. Louis.
In the pre-civil rights era, few spoke up on behalf of the immigrants, historians say.
Some of those apprehended in the raids were allowed to become legal residents by signing up for work programs. Others were sent back to Mexico, often in overcrowded ships or trains.
In one incident, deportees on an overcrowded ship in the Gulf of Mexico rioted; five drowned.
Mexican immigration authorities, under pressure from farm owners in their own country to slow emigration to the U.S., which was depleting their labor force, often forced arriving deportees to board trains that took them deep into the Mexican interior.
One day, my father didn’t come home. My brother and I were left without a father. We never saw him again.
“It was very inhumane,” said Mae Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University who has documented dozens of deaths from that era, including 88 people who died from heat exhaustion while being deported.
Though the program did increase the ranks of legal immigrant workers, it didn’t halt illegal immigration, she said.
“They didn’t stop it,” Ngai said. “They lessened it temporarily, but they didn’t stop it.”
The goal of the Eisenhower-era program and earlier deportation efforts was not simply to remove immigrants in the country illegally, but to push them to gain legal status, said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a professor of history at UCLA who has written about the deportations.
At a time when the U.S. and Mexico were promoting a guest-worker system for agricultural workers, “this was about frightening employers and the immigrants into getting with the program,” she said.
While many immigrants in the country illegally were deported under the program, many were also granted work permits so they could stay, she said. That’s an aspect of the program left out by Trump, who has not proposed increasing opportunities for legal immigration to the U.S.
“He doesn’t know the full history,” said Hernandez, who called Trump’s proposal “a fantasy.”
Like today, U.S. authorities in the early and middle parts of last century faced a conundrum. Farm and business owners demanded cheap labor, and immigrants from Mexico were willing to supply it. But authorities on both sides of the border wanted some semblance of control.
June 17, 1954: Immigration officers and sheriff’s deputies march a group of 10 Mexican nationals illegally in the United States away from an East Los Angeles foundry.(Paul Calvert / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
June 17, 1954: Ed Parker, chief patrol inspector for the border patrol, with map in center, gives agents their assignments.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
June 17, 1954: Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies search men picked up in East Los Angeles.(Paul Calvert / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 18, 1954: Immigration inspectors place detained Mexican nationals on a detention bus at Ford and Whittier boulevards in East Los Angeles, before taking them to the main detention center in Elysian Park.(John Malmin / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 17, 1954: People taken to the Recreation Center in Elysian Park await processing for their return to Mexico. About 300 were in the group rounded up that morning.(Paul Calvert / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 17, 1954: Mrs. Rosario Martinez, 18, holds 10-month-old daughter Sandra, as she awaits trip to the Elysian Park detention center. Her husband, Manuel, 24, was also detained. This photo was published on the front page of the June 17, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Paul Calvert / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 18, 1954: Alejandro Jauregui, 22, is flushed from his rooftop hiding place by U.S. Immigration Officer S. T. Chandler. This photo was published in the June 19, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(John Malmin / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
June 18, 1954. Mexican nationals are marched through Calexico after being rounded up. This photo was published in the June 21, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
June 17, 1954: Mexican nationals enter El Centro border patrol compound prior to deportation. This photo was published in the June 18, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
June 19, 1954: Buses, filled with people caught in raids, wait in Nogales, Ariz., before crossing the border into Mexico. This photo was published in the June 20, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 19, 1954: People climb aboard trains for the trip through Mexico. This photo was published in the June 21, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
June 19, 1954: Juan Martinez, standing, changes U.S. money into Mexican currency for Refugio Martinez, about to be deported, as Officer Miguel Corona looks on in Nogales, Ariz. This photo was published in the June 20, 1954, Los Angeles Times.(Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
They tried to exert it with the Bracero program, a series of agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments, beginning in 1942, that allowed Mexicans to work in the U.S. on short-term contracts. But many employers skirted the law, preferring to hire less expensive laborers who crossed the border illegally.
The U.S. conducted periodic deportation campaigns as early as the 1920s, according to Ngai. In the 1950s, tensions reached a peak.
Warning against an “invasion” of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, the head of the agency then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated Operation Wetback in 1954.
According to Ngai, “the project was conceived and executed as though it was a military operation,” with 800 immigration agents fanning out across the Southwest, apprehending as many as 3,000 immigrants a day at roadblocks and in raids on homes, farms and factories.
Veteran farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta remembers the deportation campaign vividly.
At the time, she was living in Stockton, where her mother owned a motel. She recalls immigration agents raiding the hotel and the movie theater across the street.
“They would show up and check everybody,” said Huerta, whose family members were U.S. citizens. “My mom used to say, ‘Tell them you need to see a search warrant.’”
“It was terrible,” said Huerta, adding that the raids sowed fear in the community and helped drive her to join the fight for immigrant farmworker rights.
Torres, whose father was removed to Mexico in one of the early deportation campaigns, said his father eventually came back to the U.S. But by then, Torres and his mother had moved to East Los Angeles.
He knew nothing about his father’s life or whereabouts until 20 years later, when he received news that his father had died.