Today is Cesar Chavez’s birthday, celebrated as a state holiday in California, and an optional holiday in a few other states. Chavez has been held up as a symbol of race pride and open borders. A hagiographic film has just been released, and President Obama used the occasion of a screening at the White House to push “immigration reform.”
What neither the film nor the president mentioned was that Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union, was a fierce opponent of illegal immigration and supporter of tight border controls. That’s why it’s fitting to observe March 31 each year as National Border Control Day, in honor of the farmworker leader.
Chavez’s core insight was based on the law of supply and demand — farm work would remain low-paid, exploitative work so long as an unlimited supply of stoop labor could just come across the border and undercut his efforts at increasing pay and benefits. It’s a lesson today’s promoters of “immigration reform” — i.e., amnesty, more immigration, and weaker enforcement — would do well to heed.
Now, I’m a pretty conventional conservative and have never had much time for unions. None of my forebears was ever in a union, and the harm done by thuggish labor bosses and crippling work rules does nothing to make organized labor more appealing.
But when you see the appalling pay and conditions of farmworkers — whether in Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame or modern-day slavery prosecutions — it’s hard not to feel like the mirror image of George McGovern when he opened an inn after retiring. After a lifetime of big-government activism, he discovered “that legislators and government regulators must more carefully consider the economic and management burdens we have been imposing on U.S. business.” Farmworkers — like small businessmen — are treated like crap, and they were even when they were mostly Americans. Conservatives don’t have to embrace socialism to recognize this fact. Just because leftists say something doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Of course, workers in lots of industries have been treated like crap, which is why unions sprung up in the first place. And economic growth and development have improved conditions immensely.
But not for farmworkers. Farm work has long been treated differently; much of the New Deal, for instance, didn’t apply to agricultural laborers. Later, based on fears of an agricultural-labor shortage during World War II (there actually was no shortage), big farmers got the federal government to initiate schemes to import captive labor from Mexico and the Caribbean, eliminating any chance for American farmworkers to better their lot. This evolved into the Bracero Program, which continued until Congress abolished it in 1964. Between 1942 and 1964, the program admitted 4.6 million workers, though since some workers returned year after year, it’s estimated that only 1 million to 2 million men actually participated.
It’s no coincidence that Chavez enjoyed his first success only after the end of the Bracero Program. Writes economist Philip Martin, the nation’s leading authority on immigration and farm labor:
In the spring of 1966, the combined groups, renamed the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), won a 40 percent wage increase for grape pickers, largely because no Braceros were available. This UFW grape victory ushered in a 15-year golden era for US farm workers that ended with rising illegal migration in the 1980s and 1990s. [emphasis added]
Chavez wasn’t coy about the need to keep out intruders. David Gregory Gutiérrez has written that “from its inception in 1962 the UFW lobbied for strict control of the Mexican border” and that Chavez “was among the most vocal critics of illegal immigration.” In 1969 Chavez testified before Congress:
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 struck fields. . . . This is why we are forced to boycott: We have had no enforcement by the Border Patrol.
In a 1972 interview, he described a strike in which the employer was unable to find strikebreakers; then, “all of the sudden yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks, these are the illegals, from Mexico.”
In 1973, Chavez sent his cousin Manuel down to the border to establish a “wet line” patrol to prevent illegal aliens from coming in to break a strike. Unlike the peaceful and hands-off Minuteman gatherings a few years ago, the United Farm Workers’ efforts sometimes involved more direct means of border control, including roughing up the illegals.
In 1974, he sent a memo to UFW operatives announcing “the beginning of a MASSIVE CAMPAIGN to get the recent flood of illegals out of California.”
In 1979, he testified again before Congress:
It is apparent that when the farmworkers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike. And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking.
Also in 1979, Chavez spoke at the National Press Club, demanding that the federal government faithfully execute the immigration laws and keep illegal aliens out of the country. He added that if “my mother was breaking the strike and if she were illegal, I’d ask the same thing.”
My point in presenting so many examples is to make clear that Chavez’s commitment to border control was not a passing phase — it was at the center of his labor activism. Contemporary lefties and Hispanic chauvinists try to explain this away as part of a “complex history” and point to his later life, after the UFW shriveled, when he started to believe the press coverage of him as a secular saint. But he also became increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal, flirting with the Synanon cult, enforcing communal living, conducting purges of “disloyal” subordinates.
Chavez’s decline into eccentricity is hardly unprecedented among notable figures and is not what he should be remembered for. The accomplishments of, say, Howard Hughes as an aviator and businessman are distinct from his later decline, when he refused to cut his fingernails and surrounded himself with Kleenex boxes.
So it is with Chavez. Whatever he turned into later, in his prime he was a champion of strict control of the borders, to ensure that American workers and American employers would have to duke it out on an even playing field. If he’d succeeded, less-skilled Americans would be better off, instead of seeing their real wages drop 21 percent since 1979.
We shouldn’t let the open-borders folks and the racial chauvinists send this history down the memory hole. Which is why Chavez’s birthday should be recognized each year as National Border Control Day. Happy birthday, Cesar Chavez!
— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.