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Dr. J. A. Hockaday Collection - Operation Wetback (1954)

Donald L. Hockaday

Silent | 1954

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  •  Apprehended migrant workers board the Emancipation in Port Isabel 
  •  The ship departs for Veracruz, Mexico 
  •  Jumping waves 
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  • About the video
  • Dr. James A. Hockaday Dr. James A. Hockaday
  • Bracero Program and Operat... Bracero Program and Operation Wetback
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In this home movie from 1954, Donald L. Hockaday and his father, Dr. James A. Hockaday, watch as Border Patrol officials load apprehended undocumented immigrants into a ship—named the Emancipación—for deportation from Port Isabel, Texas to Veracruz, Mexico. The immigrants were deported as part of “Operation Wetback,” a quasi-military repatriation project headed by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service that sought to remove undocumented Mexican immigrants from the Southwest. After the ship departs, the footage captures the Hockaday family enjoying an afternoon at the beach. Please note: ”Wetback” is a derogatory term applied to Mexicans laborers who crossed the Rio Grand River. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image does not condone the use of this term, but presents this film with its accurate historical context, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim this discriminatory behavior never existed.
James A. Hockaday was born on January 23, 1892 in Plattsburg, Missouri. After serving in the medical corps during World War I, he moved his family to Port Isabel, Texas, where he developed a prominent career as a physician and surgeon. In 1946, Hockaday was elected mayor of Port Isabel. While his first term ended in 1947, he was elected mayor a second time in 1956, holding the position for a decade. Interested in the life and history of the area in which he lived, Hockaday was a member of the Texas State Historical Association, the Texas Historical Foundation, and the Cameron County Historical Survey committee. He also served as a president and lifetime board member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Historical Society. Hockaday died on May 10, 1966 in Brownsville. His files of historical data are included in a memorial library in Port Isabel. 
On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexican governments signed the Mexican Farm Labor Program Agreement. Known as the Bracero program, the negotiation sought to legalize and control Mexican migrant workers in the Southwest, guaranteeing laborers a minimum wage and protections from exploitation as well as calling for stricter border security and the return of illegal immigrants to Mexico. (Texas farmers, however, initially chose not to comply with the accord, hiring farmworkers directly from Mexico and violating mandates regarding compensation and humane treatment.) The agreement continued uninterrupted until 1964.
While an estimated two million Mexican nationals legally participated in the program, the accord did not sufficiently accommodate either the number of Mexican migrants wishing to work in the United States or the demand for laborers by American growers. As a result, the program proved ineffective at limiting illegal immigration into the United States. Between 1944 and 1954, the number of illegal aliens coming from Mexico rose by 6,000 percent. The dramatic increase in illegal border crossings—totaling an estimated one million by 1954—created a growing number of diplomatic and security issues, as the Mexican government suspended the agreement and ceased the exportation of workers while the violation of labor laws encouraged criminality, disease, and illiteracy.
Consequently, in the early 1950s the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) increased its raids. And in 1954, the agency—working alongside the United States Border Patrol and the Mexican government—launched Operation Wetback, a quasi-military project of search and seizure of all illegal immigrants from Mexico. (”Wetback” is a derogatory term applied to Mexicans laborers who crossed the Rio Grand River.) Fanning out from the lower Rio Grande Valley, the operation focused on the border areas of Texas and Mexico. Apprehended aliens were initially repatriated through either Presidio or El Paso. To discourage reentry of deportees, Mexican officials then moved the workers far into the interior of the country. As the pace of the operation slowed, deportation by sea began, with ferries traveling from Port Isabel, Texas to Veracruz, Mexico.
While central Mexico allegedly offered the repatriated workers many labor opportunities, the operation’s policy nevertheless frequently resulted in the deportation of Mexicans to unfamiliar places, where they were often stranded without food or employment and unable to contact their families. Furthermore, those apprehended were sometimes left in the desert to face extreme conditions; 88 deported workers died in 112-degree heat in July 1955.
The INS claimed that the operation forced as many as 1.3 million migrant workers to leave the country during its first year; however, this number does not equal the official total of apprehensions. (The estimate supposedly accounts for those who chose to leave voluntarily.) Despite its efforts, however, border recruitment of illegal workers by American farmers continued, resulting in the quick and ultimate decline of the program. Nevertheless, Operation Wetback helped to develop a more permanent, strategic border control presence.