During President Joe Biden’s tenure in the Oval Office, the United States has experienced a truly gargantuan surge in illegal immigration along its southern border.
Since Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, over 7 million people have illegally crossed the southern border, and the number of border encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has increased every year Biden has been in office. Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 saw 1,734,686 and 2,378,944 encounters, respectively, while Fiscal Year 2023 recorded the highest number of annual encounters in U.S. history — 2,475,669. September alone saw nearly 270,000 encounters, the highest number of monthly encounters ever reported.
Democratic politicians, activists, and the mainstream media have repeatedly claimed over the last decade that the number of illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States is close to 11 million, despite several surges in border crossings over the years. A report from the House Homeland Security Committee published on November 13 estimated that there are actually as many as 29 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.
Coinciding with the unprecedented border numbers, former president and current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has expanded on his immigration agenda, promising to crack down on illegal border crossings if he is returned to the White House. A critical element of this updated agenda is his call for mass deportations of illegal immigrants already residing within the nation’s borders, according to the New York Times.
To achieve this, Trump has said that we would use certain laws, including the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, to expedite the removal of illegal immigrants without the need for due process hearings. He has also said he would reallocate personnel from other federal agencies as well as deputize local law enforcement and National Guard units to aid ICE in the deportation efforts.
Biden’s 2024 campaign has hurled a bevy of insults at Trump’s plan for mass deportations, calling it “scary,” “an affront” to the Constitution, “racist,” and “cruel.” The Biden administration has on numerous occasions dismissed the idea of mass deportations as a possible solution to illegal immigration, either by arguing the option is too cruel or too impractical.
During arguments before the Supreme Court regarding a case related to Biden’s deportation policy in November 2022, the administration’s lawyer said that it would be “impossible” to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, much less the up to 29 million estimated by the House Homeland Security Committee.
In February 2023, Biden himself said that he would not “consider” using mass deportations to remove illegal immigrants after Title 42, a health order authorizing border officials to immediately expel migrants without processing, expired.
“Reports that we are considering mass deportations of non-Mexicans to Mexico are false,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron Espinosa stated.
The administration’s conviction that mass deportations would be “impossible” ignores one simple fact — it’s been done before. Not only has it been done before, but it was highly successful. The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to deport over a million Mexican nationals in only a few months in 1954.
In fact, Trump referenced Eisenhower’s deportation program during a September rally in Iowa — “Following the Eisenhower model, we will carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.”
The origin of the illegal immigration problem the U.S. faced in the early 1950s can be traced back to the Bracero Program. The United States’ mobilization during World War II caused acute labor shortages in the agricultural industry as men either went to fight overseas or moved to the city to get more lucrative jobs in factories producing supplies for the war effort.
In response to the shortages, the Roosevelt administration signed an agreement with Mexico in August 1942 that allowed Mexican workers to enter the country legally and work on American farms in states along the southern border. Tens of thousands, under strict conditions, were allowed to get a permit to work on American farms before returning to Mexico. Over 150,000 Mexicans participated in the Bracero Program during World War II. However, the demand for cheap labor in the U.S. was far too large to be satiated by the Bracero Program, and many farmers began hiring laborers who had failed to get a Bracero permit and had crossed over illegally instead.
Illegal immigration steadily grew during the war and began to surge in the late 1940s. Whereas there were only a little over 11,000 apprehensions by the Border Patrol in 1942, there were over 288,000 in 1949.
By 1951, President Harry Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor reported that illegal immigration along the southern border had “reached entirely new levels in the past seven years. The number of deportations and voluntary departures has continuously mounted each year, from twenty-nine thousand in 1944 to 565,000 in 1950. In its newly achieved proportions, it is virtually an invasion.”
The Commission’s report estimated that nearly half of the nation’s migratory farm labor force was made up of illegal immigrants. The number of border apprehensions grew rapidly under Truman, but a determined, organized effort to expel illegal immigrants from states in the Southwest didn’t materialize until Eisenhower took office in 1953.
After an investigation into the effects of illegal immigration in southern California, Attorney General Herbert Brownwell Jr. lobbied Congress to enact sanctions against those who hired illegal immigrants. While Congress did not act on Brownwell’s recommendations, the Eisenhower administration drew up plans for a deportation operation.
The commissioner general for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Gen. Joseph Swing, announced the implementation of “Operation Wetback,” a military-style campaign designed to round up large numbers of illegal immigrants and deport them back to Mexico. The operation began in June 1954 in California and Arizona, but it soon expanded to other states along the southern border. While the Border Patrol managed to capture tens of thousands of illegal immigrants for deportation, many more crossed back into Mexico of their own accord after hearing of the operation.
By the fall of 1954, the operation wound down to a lack of funding for the INS. Despite lasting only a few months, the operation managed to deport around 1.1 million illegal immigrants, according to the INS’s report.
In its 1955 annual report, the INS claimed, “The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists. The decline in the number of ‘wetbacks’ found in the United States, even after concentrated and vigorous enforcement efforts were pursued throughout the year, reveals that this is no longer, as in the past, a problem in border control. The border has been secured.”
In the following years, apprehensions at the southern border shrank dramatically, never reaching more than 100,000 per year between 1956 and 1964, according to a 1980 report by the Congressional Research Service. The number of border apprehensions began to grow once more after the end of the Bracero program in 1964 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. However, border apprehensions did not return to over 1 million per year until 1977.
Over a million Mexican nationals were reportedly sent back to Mexico in only a few months in the middle of 1954 by a Border Patrol that was a fraction of the size of the modern agency. Biden and others in the Democratic Party (as well as a fair amount of voices in the Republican Party) decry ideas of mass deportation as impractical, but the results of the Eisenhower administration’s efforts nearly 70 years ago show that the lack of political will, rather than a lack of manpower or resources, is the main obstacle to securing the southern border.