History

Cesar Chavez: Anti-Immigration to His Union Core

Obama honoree opposed ‘illegals.’

By 7.15.14

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Call it the whitewash of Cesar Chavez. Yes, that Cesar Chavez: the late farm worker unionizer (he died in 1993) honored repeatedly by President Obama. The man the Left loves to name drop for his role in organizing all-those grape and lettuce and melon pickers in the day.

But there is a considerable twist to the story. In fact, Cesar Chavez believed ferociously in the border of the United States — because that border protected his union. So ferociously did he hold this view that the New York Times ran a story detailing an accusation that the union Chavez founded, the United Farm Workers, set up a 100 mile “wet line” to keep “wetbacks” and “illegals” — yes, all of those are Chavez’s words — out of the United States. So let’s go back in the time machine to the period when Chavez was rocketing to fame.

It was just after midnight on June 5, 1968. Forty-six years ago. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the brother and confidante of the martyred JFK, now himself a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, had just won the California primary. The Democratic National Convention was set for August, and, President Lyndon Johnson having withdrawn from the race, what lay ahead were two and a half months of political combat with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

But this night in June, RFK had stepped to the podium in front of a cheering crowd in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to claim victory. Long forgotten now is the diminutive woman who was at his side, and the man for whom she worked. Both of whom were acknowledged by Bobby Kennedy before he left the podium, shortly thereafter to be assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

Here’s the video of the first part of RFK’s victory speech from that night. At about 5:20, RFK says: “I want to thank Cesar Chavez, who was here a little earlier.”

That would be the Cesar Chavez who was already a Hispanic icon. Founder of the National Farm Workers Association (later renamed as the United Farm Workers or UFW), Chavez was the Martin Luther King of Chicanos who, like King and their mutual hero Gandhi, believed and supposedly practiced non-violence. Chavez was a member of Kennedy’s victorious California slate of delegates elected in the primary. Chavez wasn’t on the platform because he’d stepped away to look for his wife. But that didn’t stop the crowd from chanting at RFK’s arrival at the podium: “We want Chavez! We want Kennedy! We want Chavez!”

Decades later, President Obama would celebrate a film tribute, Cesar Chavez, American Hero, lavishing praise on the “lessons” of his life, and taking note of the fact that Chavez’s granddaughter works in the White House. Obama would also acknowledge the presence of, yes, Delores Huerta — the dark haired woman pictured at RFK’s side that long ago June night — whom the president would credit as a co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Further, here is Obama in Keene, California, announcing the Cesar Chavez National Monument. And don’t forget the Medal of Freedom awarded to Delores Huerta (who, as Rush Limbaugh notes, is an honorary chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America).

So. What’s the big deal, you ask? A hat tip here to Mark Levin, who brought up a startling fact: Cesar Chavez was deeply opposed to illegal immigration. But the question here is why. 

The fact is that just as Americans along the southern border today want it sealed to protect their private property or the safety of their families, Cesar Chavez wanted desperately to protect his union from illegal border crossings by Mexican “strikebreakers.” At core, Chavez was demanding — like property owners along the border today — that the sovereignty of the United States be respected. Those who remember Chavez recall him vividly as a committed Chicano activist who neither minced words nor shied away from acting on his beliefs. And in doing so, he put himself firmly on record against illegal immigration.

Here is Chavez himself on video from a September 25, 1972 interview with KQED in San Francisco, explaining just why he opposes illegal immigration — along the way using the terms “wetbacks” and “illegals.” (Both terms are considered offensive today, the latter being banned from usage by the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and others.) Says Chavez in the interview: “As long as we have a poor country bordering California its going to be very difficult to win strikes as strikes are won normally by other unions with the employer.” He goes on to discuss a strike his union was involved with against a gas and oil company, saying:

…where we closed them down, they were unable to get strikebreakers, or they’d gotten very few. And then all of a sudden yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks — these are the illegals — from Mexico. Now, there’s no way to defend against that kind of strikebreaking…

In fact, the concern was raised to Robert Kennedy, who went to California in 1966 to conduct a Senate hearing on the issue. RFK was furious with a local sheriff accused by Chavez and his allies of being anti-Farm Union. The sheriff told RFK he was only trying to prevent violence. They had told the sheriff and his deputies of the Chavez strikers: “If you don’t get them out of here, we’re going to cut their hearts out.”

Said RFK: “They’re struggling for their rights.” Kennedy worked closely with Chavez to write federal legislation that protected the right to collective bargaining for farm workers. When Kennedy was heckled by McCarthy supporters in 1968 demanding to know where he had been while they were busy trying to defeat LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, it was Chavez who answered: “He was walking with me in Delano!” As indeed he had been, RFK having showed up in Delano, California, to personally lend his support to the fasting Chavez.

On February 7, 1979, the New York Times ran a story in which the paper reported that Chavez, during a UFW-led seven-month-long strike outside Yuma, Arizona, five years earlier, had the union establish a “100-mile-long ‘wet line’ of military-style tents to halt the flow of illegal aliens across the border.” What happened? Said the Times of a strike led by Cesar's cousin Manuel Chavez: “… hundreds of Mexican aliens were brutally beaten by UFW representatives to keep them from crossing the border and taking the jobs of striking melon workers.”

The sheriff of Yuma County, Travis Yancy, told the Times: “Each tent was manned by five or six of their people who were paid $5 to $7 a day, plus their grub. They’d catch any ‘wet’ coming through and beat the hell out of them.” The UFW workers were, said the Times, “using clubs, chains and five-foot-long flogging whips comprised of intertwined strands of barbed wire.” The paper also reported that Yancy “alleged that the UFW had ‘bombed the houses and burned the cars’ of potential strike-breaking aliens and bribed Mexican officials not to interfere with the ‘wet line.’” To put it mildly, the story of the UFW's alleged treatment of strikebreakers was leagues beyond what had so angered Bobby Kennedy about the California sheriff’s alleged treatment of UFW workers in 1966. 

The Times in its 1979 story reported this next: 

Asked in an interview about these allegations, Cesar Chavez acknowledged: “We had a ‘wet line’; it cost us a lot of money, and we stopped a lot of illegals.” Chavez, the disciple of non-violence in the fashion of King and Gandhi, said of the alleged violence against illegals said to be committed by the UFW: “If it happened…I know nothing about it. I tried to look into it. I talked to all of the Mexican officials I could get hold of; I checked everybody to get a feeling of what had happened, but I didn’t find anything that made me feel anything wrong had happened.” 

Why does any of this matter now? Who cares?

Just as liberals are relentlessly trying to whitewash (so to speak) their own role in historical American racism, so too are they trying to simultaneously establish Cesar Chavez as an American hero and deliberately ignore his repeated and vivid views about illegal immigration. Here, for example, is a video from the UFW itself celebrating Cesar Chavez, replete with narration from liberal actors Martin Sheen, Ed Begley, Jr. and Edward James Olmos along with images of Chavez and RFK. There’s not a word — not a peep — about Chavez’s views on “wetbacks” and “illegals.” These Chavez views have also suddenly gone missing today as President Obama celebrates Chavez on film and with that national monument in California. Everything else, including those serious allegations made in the Times that UFW workers, under the leadership of Chavez’s own cousin, brutally beat Mexican workers, is swept under the rug.

But well aside from the airbrushing, the real point in paying attention to what the late Cesar Chavez had to say — in listening to the man who was supported by Bobby Kennedy and honored by Barack Obama — is that he was making a common sense point (though perhaps in words we wouldn’t endorse today). Chavez, in his own quite distinctive way, understood the concept of sovereignty. He understood that without a border, his union was under threat. Cesar Chavez, documentedly born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, was in fact a citizen who had a right to express his own “consent of the governed.”

Thus Cesar Chavez. Do liberals want to live up to the ideals of this hero of union rights, the real ideals on immigration as he himself expressed them? Then do it — peacefully — by bringing the federal government's resources to bear on closing the border. Organized labor, take note.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.