It gets worse. In 1973, in a disgraceful chapter, the UFW set up what union officials called a “wet line” to stop Mexican immigrants from entering the United States. Under the supervision of Chávez’s cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to convince immigrants not to cross the border. When that didn’t work, they physically attacked the immigrants. Covering the incident at the time, the Village Voice said that the UFW was engaged in a “campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net.” A couple of decades later, in their book The Fight in the Fields, Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval recalled the border violence and wrote that the issue of how to handle illegal immigration was “particularly vexing” for Chávez.
UFW supporters might brush aside this ugly history and insist that it’s conceivable that, were he alive today, Chavez might have no trouble with the concept of legalizing undocumented immigrants. After all, the argument goes, once those individuals are legal, they won’t be easily exploited and thus won’t be able to undercut the negotiating power of union members.
But there is more to it than that. Keep in mind that the current discussion about comprehensive immigration reform includes plans to bring in, over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of guest workers to — borrowing a phrase — do jobs that Americans won’t do. That provision costs reformers the support of organized labor, and it’s very likely that would have included the support of Cesar Chavez.
In fact, the one good thing to come of this episode might just be that it serves to remind the immigration reform community not only who their heroes really were in the past but also who their friends are today.