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Burgeoning numbers of Mexican migrants prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to appoint General Joseph Swing as INS Commissioner. According to Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., Eisenhower had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration upon taking office. In a letter to Senator J. William Fulbright, Eisenhower quoted a report in The New York Times that said, "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."
The effort began in California and Arizona in 1954 and coordinated 1,075 Border Patrol agents, along with state and local police agencies. Tactics employed included going house to house in Mexican-American neighborhoods and citizenship checks during standard traffic stops.
Some 750 agents targeted agricultural areas with a goal of 1,000 apprehensions per day. By the end of July, over 50,000 illegal aliens were caught in the two states. An estimated 488,000 illegal aliens are believed to have left voluntarily, for fear of being apprehended. By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in Texas, and the INS estimated that 500,000 to 700,000 had left Texas of their own accord. To discourage illicit re-entry, buses and trains took many deportees deep within Mexican territory before releasing them.
Tens of thousands more were deported by two chartered ships: the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The ships ferried them from Port Isabel, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico, more than 500 miles (800 km) to the south. Some were taken as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 km). Deportation by sea was ended after seven deportees jumped overboard from the Mercurio and drowned, provoking a mutiny that led to a public outcry in Mexico.
There were widespread allegations of abuse against Mexicans and US citizens of Mexican descent, including harassment and beatings.