Today, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, has become Mexican Americans’ equivalent of Columbus Day for Italian Americans. It’s recognized as a holiday in certain states.
But more important than the parochial interest in Chavez as an ethnic icon is his relevance to the immigration debate. Despite the appropriation of his name by the anti-borders crowd, Chavez was a fierce defender of America’s borders as a means of helping struggling American workers better themselves.
That’s why March 31 is increasingly recognized as National Border Control Day. (Arizona representative Paul Gosar introduced a resolution to that effect last week.)And with a Merkel-level migration disaster brewing on our southern border, its observance is all the more necessary.
A useful window into Chavez’s views on border control comes from a speech he delivered almost exactly 40 years ago at the National Press Club in Washington. The speech came in the midst of a strike against lettuce farmers by Chavez’s United Farm Workers union, and the core of Chavez’s complaint was that the federal government was refusing to enforce immigration laws, thus siding with the farmers against the workers.
Many labor unions perfectly embody Eric Hoffer’s observation that “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” But in this case, as in others, there’s a reason the movement got started in the first place. Farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation given the nature of their workplace, and they’re not covered by many of the legal protections enjoyed by other workers.
In the specific case Chavez was addressing, he claimed that over an eight-and-a-half-year period, post-inflation hourly pay for lettuce-pickers had increased a total of less than 8 percent, while those working piece-rate were actually getting paid less in 1979 than they had been in 1970. All this while, Chavez claimed, the lettuce farmers’ earnings had increased far more than inflation. As Chavez told the National Press Club, “we couldn’t live with what we were getting paid.”
Now, maybe none of that’s true; maybe the farmworkers were rolling in dough and Chavez was just getting greedy. I doubt it, but it doesn’t actually matter. The tug-of-war between employers and employees is a natural part of a market economy, but the rules of that game are set and enforced by government. Chavez’s complaint to those gathered at the National Press Club was that the rules were not being followed, and that the government referees were willfully ignoring rule-breaking by the farmers.
As Chavez put it in the speech, what started as “a straight, simple, very clear economic disagreement between us and the employers has turned to something quite different.”
We began to see in the fields a large number of strikebreakers from Mexico, from the Philippines. We began to complain to the Immigration [and] Naturalization Service in the local offices, we began to complain to Mr. [Leonel] Castillo [INS Commissioner] in Washington and to his intermediaries, asking them to look at the strikebreakers and that there were large numbers — anywhere between 90 and 95 percent of the people breaking the strike were people who had been brought in from Mexico to break the strike.
Flooding the job market with illegal immigrants always weakens the hand of workers and strengthens employers, and this case was no exception: “The moment the number of illegals increased in the fields,” Chavez said, “they [the growers] lost all interest in negotiating with us.”
Chavez said he had initially been optimistic that the INS would respond to the complaints about illegal workers’ being imported to break the strike, since President Jimmy Carter’s INS commissioner, Leonel Castillo, “made some claims that his father used to be a migrant worker” and “we thought . . . that Mr. Castillo, being part of ‘La Raza’ [Chavez orally used scare quotes, since he rejected the concept], that he would understood [sic].”
But the enforcement didn’t happen. (Castillo was the one who introduced the euphemism “undocumented” into the Left’s lexicon.) In response to Castillo’s claims that “many of the union’s complaints have been vague or unproductive when checked out,” Chavez gave specifics that have the ring of truth: “90 illegal aliens . . . at the Torro camp on Burton Road in Salinas,” “65 illegal aliens housed at the California Coastal Farm on Westfall Road, just outside Gonzales, Calif.,” “between 50 and 90 illegals . . . picked up every morning in front of Rosita’s Café in Salinas, in North Main Street.” My favorite: “30 illegal aliens housed at the Almost Motel, corner of Date Street and Highway 1 . . . after work, if you go to room 28, room 29, room 32, and room 53, collectively there are 30 illegals there.”
Chavez channeled the vexation of his fellow border hawks over the years: “It’s frustrating to be a citizen of this country and see that your government, because of inaction of some bureaucrats, are not living up to the law.” Elsewhere in the speech Chavez foreshadows Donald Trump: “What the heck’s going on? It’s just, it’s a complete breakdown of the law. They’re not doing anything.”
Now Chavez wasn’t a “build the wall and deport them all” guy. In response to a question, he expressed support for a limited amnesty for long-established illegals: “I think that an amnesty program dealing with, very carefully dealing with people who are here, have roots here and are related to citizens . . . we should take a very close look at that.”
But regarding the economic harm done to American workers by ongoing illegal immigration, he was unequivocal. In response to an incendiary question — “Do you feel uneasy being allied with the reactionary groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, in calling for stricter enforcement of immigration laws?” — he did not mince words: “[If] my mother was breaking the strike, if she was illegal, I’d ask the same thing.”
The “mother of all caravans” is forming in Central America, and our border-enforcement system is at “the breaking point” — all because Democrats in Congress categorically reject any effort to plug the legal loopholes that drive the accelerating flood at the border. In effect, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are doing just what Cesar Chavez complained about 40 years ago: placating employers by allowing the unhindered importation of cheap labor to undermine the efforts of American workers to negotiate higher wages.
Where have you gone, Cesar Chavez? On this National Border Control Day, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.