The Immigration Debate and Cesar Chavez

The immigration debate continues to be based on myths created to fill certain political agendas. For years, one of the most distorted histories has been about Cesar Chavez. Chavez is routinely brought up as a hero of immigrants. Yet, Cesar Chavez was as anti-immigrant as most anti-immigrants are. It comes down to the simple fact that Chavez, born in the United States, to Mexican parents, fought for labor rights for American citizens. Immigrant labor for Chavez competed against those Chavez supported.

Much of the false narrative about Chavez comes from Chavez’ own changing views on immigration as the political rhetoric required. The United Farm Workers (UFW), as of Friday, June 29, 2018, has a website page arguing that “no labor leader and organization championed immigration reform earlier and with more consistency than Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America.” The page continues, “under Chavez, the UFW helped enact the amnesty provision of the 1986 immigration law.” [accessed on June 29, 2018]

However, the historical record of Cesar Chavez paints a vastly different truth to Cesar Chavez and how he treated immigrant laborers.

A transcript of the Education and Labor Committee of the House of Representatives of October 1, 1969 where Cesar Chavez addressed the committee gives us a good indication of how Chavez viewed Mexican immigrants.

“We have had for the last four years a most difficult problem with the Justice Department. A year ago we assigned many of our organizers to do nothing but to check on the law violators coming from Mexico to break our strikes. We gave the Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Border Patrol stacks and stacks of information. They did not pull workers out of the struck fields.” [1, pg 3]

Cesar Chavez, in testifying to the congressional committee makes two important admissions. His organization, the United Farm Workers, actively engaged in helping immigration officials identify Mexican laborers working the fields. Chavez and his organization actively demanded that the Mexican laborers they identified be deported.

But Chavez wasn’t finished:

“I would like to remind the Congressmen present that in the last week and a half we have seen how effective the Border Patrol can be when they want to stop marijuana from being imported into the country. It seems to me it would be a lot less difficult to stop human beings coming across than to stop the weed coming across.” [1, pg 3]

But it wasn’t just undocumented immigrants that bothered Chavez. Green card holders, which have the legal right to live and work in the United States bothered Chavez. Congressman John Dent (D-Pennsylvania) asked Chavez if there was an increase of green card holders working the grape fields.

Chavez responded that green card holders working the fields have increased and the green card holders “are taking advantage” of their status to work the grape fields during the strikes. [1, pg 11] When Denton followed up with a question about how the “green card program has really been a dodge to circumvent the law we (Congress) passed against continuation of braceros”.

Chavez replied that the green card holders are “able to take work in America however poor the wages may be, and then go back to Mexico and live pretty well.” [1, pg 11]

To be clear, a green card holder is a legal resident of the United States with the right to work, live and pay taxes like all U.S. citizens. The exception is that a green card holder is not a citizen and cannot therefore vote in elections.

Additionally, Chavez had no problem referring to Mexican laborers as “wetbacks”. [1, pg 26] In fact, Chavez used the word frequently.

When these examples are brought up today, the usual response is that “immigration is complicated” or that the words were common vernacular at the time. However, one feels about the complexity of the immigration problem or the use of certain words, the fact remains that Chavez and the UFW are labor organizers. As such, immigrant labor is always a threat to them.

Cesar Chavez’s war against immigrants did not stop at calling them “wet backs” or demanding that immigration agents deport them.

Most readers may be aware of the Alt-right vigilante groups patrolling the border to interdict undocumented immigrants. The United Farm Workers (UFW) organized “wet lines” to keep undocumented immigrants from reaching the Yuma citrus fields.

UFW members “patrolled 125 miles of the border to prevent undocumented migrants from entering into the United States.” Some of the immigrants were beaten with “sticks,” “a battery cable” or were “robbed,” or “stripped” naked and left in the desert. [2, chapter six, second page]

Bert Corona, also a labor organizer, was driven to form the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in 1951 because of his frequent clashes with Cesar Chavez over Mexican immigrants. Corona, who was born in El Paso, believed that undocumented immigrants should organize as well to protect themselves. Corona tried to work with Chavez but finally gave up when Chavez refused to backdown on his attacks against the Mexican laborers, both legal and undocumented.

But none of this has stopped the UFW, the AFL-CIO, or Dolores Huerta from trying to misdirect with a new narrative about their history. Their favorite one is the supposed support of the UFW and other labor organizations for the amnesty Ronald Reagan pushed through in 1986. It is this supposed support that they hope allows them to distort the truth.

However, the labor organizations were against amnesty for the simple reason that newly authorized workers would compete against the union workers for jobs.

Regardless, the historical record is clear about what Cesar Chavez and the UFW thought about Mexican immigrants. They did everything in their power to keep them out of America’s agricultural fields.

1. Public Hearing Transcript of The U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee on October 1, 1969.
2. Minian, Ana Raquel; “Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration”; Harvard University Press, April 9, 2018