Promising a 'Deportation Force,' Trump Cites Eisenhower's 'Operation Wetback'

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in New Hampshire on November 11. Trump has called for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and recently suggested a "deportation force" be used to relocate immigrants who are in this country illegally. Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Donald Trump's immigration policy is a deportation policy.

The real estate mogul and presidential candidate, whose firebrand rhetoric on illegal immigration has shaken up the Republican primary, recently said that he favors creating a "deportation force" to move immigrants who are in this country illegally back across the border.

"You're going to have a deportation force. And you're going to do it humanely.... Don't forget you have millions of people that are waiting on a line to come into this country and come in legally," Trump told MSNBC Wednesday.

He didn't mention what such a proposed force would look like—for example, whether it would consist of military personnel, civilian law enforcement officers or volunteers such as the self-styled Minutemen, who monitor parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

This isn't the first time Trump's controversial plans have made headlines. A few months ago, he feuded with Fox News's Bill O'Reilly over the logistics of his immigration policy. O'Reilly criticized him for making unrealistic promises (including a massive border wall paid for by Mexico), and Trump responded by accusing Fox of undermining him.

The two are going at it once again this week. During the Republican debate Tuesday (hosted by the Fox Business Network), Trump praised a policy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration that included large-scale roundups of undocumented Mexican immigrants in trucks. Referred to as "Operation Wetback" (wetback is now considered an ethnic slur, so Trump avoids using the term), the controversial strategy led to fatalities and what some historians now consider human rights abuses.

O'Reilly made that point to the candidate on Wednesday night. "That was brutal what they did to those people to kick them back. I mean, the stuff they did was really brutal," the anchor said.

In a Wednesday morning radio interview with NPR, Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, called the Eisenhower policy "tragic."

"It was a travesty, it was terrible. To say it's a success story, it's ridiculous," he said.

Mainstream conservative candidates John Kasich and Jeb Bush were practically pleading with Trump to stop alienating Latino and Hispanic voters during the last GOP presidential debate.

"They're doing high fives in the Clinton campaign when they hear this," Bush said.

"We all know you can't pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It's a silly argument," Kasich fired off during the debate. "It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense."

Trump has received predictable social media criticism, with many Twitter posts commenting on the human rights implications of deportation policies.

No @realDonaldTrump you can't deport 11M in 2 years without human rights violations. Operation "Wetback" was a tragedy, useless and unfair

— JORGE RAMOS (@jorgeramosnews) November 11, 2015

Only Donald Trump could make Bill O'Reilly seem like the sane, rational one in a discussion on immigration

— Doug Mataconis (@dmataconis) November 12, 2015

However, it seems that Trump's original intent was to respond to a different criticism: that his deportation plans would be impractical. O'Reilly and others have questioned how a president could drum up the money and people power to deport the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. During the debate, Trump cited Operation Wetback as an example of effective deportation, but even that claim is dubious by historical standards: The policy relocated only about 1 million people, nowhere near the 11 million he wants to send packing.

Trump's immigration grandstanding has drawn a lot of attention, but he's not the first candidate to suggest nationalistic policies that might be hard to implement. During the 2000 presidential election, John McCain—promising to become "commander in chief of the war on drugs"—suggested using military troops to prevent foreign countries from importing narcotics into the U.S.