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In September 2023, Donald Trump made a sweeping promise that shocked many − even though, as recent memory serves, he made a nearly identical pledge the last time he ran for president.

“Following the Eisenhower model, we will carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” Trump said.

Forcibly rounding up and deporting the country’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, including many who have lived here for decades and have children who are U.S. citizens, might sound dystopian. But a version of this plan already happened in the 1950s, when the Eisenhower administration launched the short-lived “Operation Wetback,” which forcibly deported about 100,000 people to Mexico.

In today’s lead story, Katrina Burgess, a scholar of political economy, migration and diaspora at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, brings readers back to a dark few months in American history, from May 1954 through January 1955. She explains why Trump’s potential plan is likely to be even less successful than Operation Wetback once was.

“If he were to win the presidency again, Trump would have the legal authority to deport undocumented immigrants, but the logistical, political and legal obstacles to doing so quickly and massively are even greater today than they were in the 1950s,” Burgess writes.

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Amy Lieberman

Politics + Society Editor

A U.S. Border Patrol officer shows how he found an undocumented Mexican immigrant under the hood of a car along the U.S.-Mexican border in March 1954. Associated Press

Trump promises to deport all undocumented immigrants, resurrecting a 1950s strategy − but it didn’t work then and is less likely to do so now

Katrina Burgess, Tufts University

Donald Trump says he will authorize a roundup of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. A 1950s program with similar goals, called Operation Wetback, offers lessons.

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