MILWAUKEE — As Republican touchstones go, Dwight Eisenhower is no Ronald Reagan. But Donald Trump thrust Ike into the Republican Party's disagreement over immigration this week when he applauded Eisenhower's mass deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants starting in 1954.
Trump's comments at the Republican presidential primary debate Tuesday night in Milwaukee added fresh fuel to the fight and handed Democrats and immigration advocates fresh ammunition to bludgeon the GOP.
Starting with a name that, by modern standards, is deeply offensive — "Operation Wetback'' — Eisenhower's campaign to round up Mexicans working in the Southwest and ship them back to Mexico via bus, train, and boat was a controversial and, say critics, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to curb illegal immigration.
Although the Eisenhower-era operation was far smaller than the plan Trump envisions to ship 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the US, Trump hailed it as a success during the debate.
"Dwight Eisenhower. You don't get nicer," Trump said of the genial-seeming former president, to laughter from the crowd. "You don't get friendlier. They moved a 1.5 million out. We have no choice. We have no choice."
But there are those in the party who do not want to dredge up 60-year-old memories of sweeping deportations, seeing an unwelcome image as the Republican Party seeks to court the nation's growing population of Hispanics.
Operation Wetback involved the practice of shaving the heads of Mexicans so they could be better recognized at the border. Some 88 people died in the desert heat as they were being sent back to their home countries. A congressional investigation compared one transportation vessel to an "18th century slave ship."
In an interview Wednesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Trump repeated his approval of Eisenhower's mass deportation policy and said he would implement a "deportation force" to "humanely" take people back to their countries of origin.
But those who have studied the Eisenhower's policies disagree.
"It was not humane by any stretch of the imagination," said Mae Ngai, a history professor at Columbia University and author of the book "Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America." "It was done as a military-style operation."
Eisenhower's administration was attempting to crack down on an influx of undocumented seasonal workers, mostly in California and along the border. It was largely in response to the agriculture industry's increasing reliance on cheaper, undocumented labor, flouting a government system that allowed them to use immigrants mostly for seasonal labor. Laws were being selectively enforced, creating what some considered to be an unfair system.
As part of the crackdown, the administration allowed some of the undocumented workers to become legal — an aspect that Trump does not mention. But the administration also wanted to make a prominent point to remove those who were here illegally.
Eisenhower, Ngai said, "had unprecedented numbers of border control officers. Buses, airplanes, ships, everything."
"Insofar as they were trying to have a show, it was successful. It was a big performance," she added. "But they could not sustain that level of enforcement. And it didn't stop the problem. So in that sense, it was unsuccessful."
During the debate, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush criticized Trump's tough anti-immigration stance and attacked the concept of mass deportations.
"Think about the families. Think about the children," Kasich said, in an exchange that was by far the most viewed clip on YouTube, according to an analysis by Google Trends.
Bush also jumped in, saying that it would be impractical to deport some 500,000 immigrants a month, and would tear communities apart. He said the party needed to be more pragmatic, and avoid pushing Latino voters into the arms of Democrats.
"They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this," he said. "That's the problem with this. We have to win the presidency. And the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans."
Bush was right: Democrats are salivating over the direction the GOP's immigration debate is heading.
"The idea of tracking down and deporting 11 million people is absurd, inhumane, and un-American. No, Trump," Hillary Clinton tweeted on Wednesday in both English and Spanish.
In a campaign that has been more about personality than policy, the comments about immigration Tuesday prominently revealed the profound rift in the Republican Party on the issue.
Two candidates with some of the most momentum in the campaign — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — are both Hispanic with parents who emigrated from Cuba. A third candidate, Bush, fell in love and married a woman from Mexico and raised his children in a Spanish-speaking household.
With Hispanic population growing in key swing states such as Colorado and Florida — as well as traditionally Republican states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas — some Republican analysts have warned about alienating a fast-growing segment of the electorate.
But Trump's inflammatory statements branding Mexicans as rapists and his call for an unprecedented program to ship millions of people back to their countries of origin threatens to undermine party efforts to attract Hispanic voters. During a 2012 Republican primary debate, Mitt Romney called for "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants, a phrase that came to haunt him during the general election and contributed to his anemic 27 percent support among Latino voters.
Trump referenced Eisenhower's policy during a September interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," saying the deportation program worked. Trump proposes tripling the number of immigration and customs enforcement agents and ending the practice of granting citizenship to people born in this country — a right that is embedded in the Constitution.
"The Eisenhower mass deportation policy was tragic," Alfonso Aguilar, a conservative Republican and director of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, said Wednesday morning on NPR. "Human rights were violated, people were removed to remote locations without food and water, there were many deaths...it was a travesty, it was terrible. To say it's a success story, it's ridiculous."
Prominent advocates for immigration reform are blasting Trump's deportation plan.
"This is a plan that would cost us billions of dollars and radically undermine our economic stability," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said in an e-mail. "This is an impractical and outlandish approach to immigration policy. Voters expect better."
During the debate, Cruz aligned himself with Trump's approach and said Republicans need to stand firm.
"For those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, and we should enforce the law, we're tired of being told it's anti-immigrant," Cruz said. "It's offensive."
Rubio, who did not jump into the debate over immigration on Tuesday night, was once a leader in his party on immigration reform, joining with seven other senators and pushing a comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013 that would have provided a pathway to legalization in return for stricter border control measures.
Rubio helped steer it to passage in the Senate, but then backed away from the plan amid intense conservative backlash. He now says that more has to be done to secure the border before anything is done to deal with undocumented immigrants.
"No one has done more work on it and tried to find a solution," he said at a recent town hall in Dover, N.H. But, he added, "You cannot deal with this all at once. There is no way in one big piece of legislation."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.