A state lawmaker has drawn a firestorm of criticism from the Hispanic community this week by calling for the renewal of a 1950s-era federal deportation program known as “Operation Wetback.”
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a fiery proponent of new border security laws and a crackdown on illegal immigration, talked about the possibility of mass deportations in a radio interview.
“We know what we need to do,” Pearce, a Republican seeking re-election, said during the “Morning Edition” show on KJZZ radio in Phoenix. “In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower put together a task force called ‘Operation Wetback.’ He removed, in less than a year, 1.3 million illegal aliens. They must be deported.”
The Arizona Democratic Party noted Pearce’s comments in a news release Thursday that included angry comments from Hispanic activists. They noted that the term “wetback” is considered derogatory.
Roberto Reveles, the president of Somos America, called Pearce’s comments “outrageous” and said his support of such a policy reflects “a sense of insecurity on his part and his fear and loathing of undocumented immigrants.”
“(Pearce) is on a constant campaign of demeaning people and creating an imagery of them in the public’s mind as being somewhat less than human,” Reveles said.
Pearce defended his comments, accusing activists of supporting “lawbreakers.”
“This was a successful program,” he said, “and I’m quoting a successful program for those who continue to tell you it’s impossible to deport (illegal immigrants) in this country.”
Pearce said he was only referring to the term “wetback” in its historical context.
“In the ‘50s it was common. In the ‘60s it was common. You don’t use it today because people have tried to make it offensive,” Pearce said. “Things change, and you know what? Who cares? Whatever they want to be called, I’m OK with that.”
Pearce said he likes to use “very graphic” terms to make a point.