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.
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.