The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) recently issued a statement urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
No surprise there. The nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization has long been a vocal proponent of such reform. It is especially fond of a major component — a pathway to earned legal status for illegal immigrants if they make amends for the infraction of entering the country illegally by meeting certain conditions.
What was unusual was the marketing behind the plea. The statement came on March 31, and the organization urged that Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform “in recognition of the birthday of the late civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.”
I’ve studied and written about Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union the labor leader co-founded for more than 20 years. I also grew up in the same San Joaquin Valley where so much of the UFW drama played out. And honestly, at first, I thought the statement was a parody. As I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, the historical record shows that Chavez was a fierce opponent of illegal immigration, and so it’s unlikely that he’d have looked favorably on a plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants.
But this was no joke. The NCLR actually wanted Congress to honor Chavez by passing comprehensive immigration reform. Here’s how Janet Murguia, NCLR president and CEO, connected the dots between the legislation and the labor leader. Chavez, she said, “shined a national spotlight on the depressed wages and unbearable working conditions experienced by agricultural laborers in the 1960s” and part of “any solution to the myriad problems faced by farm workers is immigration reform.”
I support comprehensive immigration reform. But it is absurd for anyone to invoke the name of Cesar Chavez to pass immigration reform. As I said, were he alive today, it’s a safe bet that Chavez would be an opponent of any legislation that gave illegal immigrants even a chance at legal status.
These days, Chávez is revered among Mexican-American activists and others as a civil rights figure. Yet that’s not who he was. Chavez was primarily a labor leader, and so one of his main concerns was keeping illegal immigrants from competing with and undercutting union members either by accepting lower wages or crossing picket lines. When he pulled workers out of the field during a strike, the last thing he wanted was a crew of illegal immigrant workers showing up to do those jobs and take away his leverage.
So Chavez decided to do something about it. According to numerous historical accounts, Chavez ordered union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and report illegal immigrants who were working in the fields so that they could be deported. Some UFW officials were also known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants.