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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 834

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This is the grave of Joseph Swing.

Born in Jersey City in 1894, Swing grew up well off and was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1915 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was on Pershing’s ridiculous chase of Pancho Villa across the Mexican desert and then was in the 1st Infantry Division in France during World War I. He became an aide to General Peyton March and in fact married his daughter Josephine in 1918.

After the war, Swing was a top student at the Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill. He continued to rise in the military during these years when there weren’t that many opportunities for promising young officers. He graduated from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth in 1927 and the Army War College in 1935. He became chief of staff for the 2nd Infantry Division and then commander for artillery for the 1st Infantry. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1941 and organized the 82nd Infantry Division just before it became an airborne division, which is what made it famous. He was promoted to major general in 1943 and organized the 11th Airborne. He played a major role in the Sicily invasion, one of the leading officers planning airborne actions. He and the 11th then went to the Philippines and Swing led it through the occupation of Japan. He commanded the 11th until 1948, when he was assigned to command the I Corps in Kyoto and then the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill. He then was the commandant of the Army War College, retiring in 1954 as a lieutenant general.

So what we have here is the story of a successful officer. That’s fine and good. That’s not why I am profiling Swing. See, when he retired, Eisenhower, who was in the same class as Swing at West Point, tapped him for a special assignment: leading the Immigration and Naturalization Service, specifically to head the hideous and racist “Operation Wetback” to purge the nation of “illegal” immigrants, specifically Braceros who overstayed their labor contracts.

After World War II, the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers to come to the U.S. on short-term contracts and then get sent home, got more controversial. This was for a number of reasons. For one, the workers were often treated horribly. Second, the labor movement rightfully saw this entire strategy as a way to undermine union labor. Maybe it made sense in the context of World War II, but why was it necessary after the war? Third, big Mexican landowners began to get resentful over the loss of their own cheap labor. They put pressure on the Mexican government to do something about it. Now, a lot of Braceros were trying to stay in the country and work independently. This is for an obvious reason–they could make more money than they could as a Bracero or in Mexico. This is where Joseph Swing enters the picture.

Swing had a top ally in his goal to purge the nation of undocumented farmworkers. That was a lovely man named Harlon Carter, head of the Border Patrol. Carter had murdered a Mexican kid named Ramon Casiano on the border in 1931 over a swimming hole dispute; a clearly racially motivated killing that he actually served a little time for, not so common in 1931. The great Drive-By Truckers song “Ramon Casiano” is about this incident, not so much for the killing itself, but because in the 1970s, it was Carter who turned the NRA from a hunting advocacy group into a far-right racial hate group determined to arm whites against the hordes.

So Swing was working with a real special guy in Operation Wetback. In 1954, they engaged in a massive deportation operation, using Border Patrol sweeps of farming communities, as well as in major cities with large Mexican populations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. In 1954 alone, over 1 million people returned to Mexico, between those caught up in the sweeps and those who returned to avoid them. This number went down to about 200,000 in 1955 and continued to fall until the program ended in 1962.

Or so Swing said anyway. It seems highly likely now that Swing massively overstated the number of people deported in order to look good to the media. Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the top historians of race, immigration, and incarceration working today, has demonstrated that really, Operation Wetback was just a gross name to what the Border Patrol was already doing. It’s possible that 1 million people did return to Mexico in 1954, but that Operation Wetback itself perhaps only rounded up 33,000 or so people. But what Hernandez also shows is that even if Swing was massively overplaying the impact of the program, it was a definitive beginning of a new era in the history of the border, with militarization increasingly the order of the day.

The entire process was racist as all hell and showed no concern at all for the migrants. They weren’t allowed to contact their families and were sent to just random places in Mexico. Many were put on ships and dropped off in Veracruz, a part of the nation where very few of them originated (the main homes of migrants at this time being the states north of Mexico City such as Michoacan and Morelia; today it is more southern states such as Oaxaca and Guerrero). They certainly weren’t allowed to gather any belongings, including any money they had saved.

Swing definitely was problematic as INS head. He clearly misused government funds to pay for his hunting trips in Mexico under the guise of his official work, which got him a lot of criticism in 1956 though did not cost him his job. Swing was in love with the idea of Operation Wetback and really wanted to militarize the Canadian border too, claiming that “restless Canadian immigrants” were taking advantage of a lax northern border to invade the United States. He got a reputation of wanting to kiss up to the Attorney General so badly that he would volunteer the Border Patrol to do anything. Among those things was sending Border Patrol agents as part of law enforcement to stop southern civil rights protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Swing announced his retirement from the INS in 1961 and left early in 1962. He seems to have lived a relatively quiet life after that, though I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a lot of lobbying involved. But there’s not much information out there on those years. He died in 1984 of pneumonia, at the age of 90.

Joseph Swing is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Thanks so much! If you would like this series to visit others involved in the racist policing of the U.S.-Mexico border, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harlon Carter is in Tucson and James Greene, who took over for Carter in 1957, also under Swing, is also in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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