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Esther Cepeda: Playing politics over immigration

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Esther Cepeda
April 5, 2014

CHICAGO -- It’s a shame that Republicans blocked a resolution calling for the Senate to honor the legacy of Chicano icon Cesar Chavez.

 But though the GOP looks petty and downright stupid for not allowing a purely symbolic commemoration honoring the history-changing labor leader, the Democrats look sort of clueless themselves for not letting the Republicans add their say to the resolution.

 According to news reports, Republicans said they would have allowed the resolution to pass if Democrats had accepted additional language recognizing that Chavez supported strict enforcement of immigration laws in order to help protect American workers’ wages. Democrats refused to agree to those additions.

 “It is an injustice to his memory,” the Washington Times quoted Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who has introduced the resolution eight consecutive years to no avail. He claimed Republicans were trying to mix the immigration debate with a commemorative resolution.

 Menendez is right: The Republicans were playing politics—just like the Democrats.

 Why, exactly, is it an injustice to Chavez’s memory to note that he was against illegal immigration because it undermined the bargaining power of U.S.-born and legal immigrant workers?

 It’s not like this is news.

 In 2012, author and former farmworker Frank Bardacke added to the stacks of Chavez biographies—minus the blind hero worship—with his book “Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.”

 He tells the story of a complex human being with grand ideas about how to make the lives of the poor better by taking on powerful, entrenched interests. And some of those interests, especially in California agribusiness, were more than happy to turn their backs on a broken, sometimes violent and often exploitive immigration system.

 “In 1948, Ventura County’s total farm receipts had been less than $40 million. In 1958, agricultural sales topped $100 million,” Bardacke writes. “Local workers were the big losers. In a period when agriculture was booming and agricultural employment climbing, there was less work for locals and at lower wages. A small group of local farmworkers held on, finding work mostly in the vegetables from the spring to the fall. Meanwhile, real wages of braceros actually declined during this remarkable decade of growth: the nominal wage in lemons, the best paid of all local agricultural jobs, was 95 cents an hour in 1947, and just 97 cents an hour in 1959.”

 Bardacke provides a colorful portrayal of how the braceros—seasonal Mexican laborers—and the people who hired them, used dirty, or outright unlawful, tricks to evade legal guarantees “that the Bracero program [a U.S.-sponsored way to bring workers across the border for seasonal labor] would not ‘adversely affect’ domestic labor and decreed that braceros could not be contracted to a job if there was enough domestic labor to do it.”

 So, yes, Chavez favored strict border controls and an Immigration and Naturalization Service that would actually do its job instead of turning a blind eye to cheap labor streaming across the border.

 Chavez also indirectly participated in an effort called the “wet line,” which involved setting up tents along the U.S.-Mexico border and staffing them with about 300 members of the United Farm Workers, who wore armbands emblazoned with “UFW Border Patrol.”

 Bardacke writes, “They were paid $10 a day plus expenses. They operated mostly at night, using dune buggies, cars, vans and small trucks to chase people down. During the day, they also had a small plane to track people from the air. … No judge’s order put any limit on what the union’s night patrol might do to the people it caught. … If you got picked up by the UFW, you were on your own.”

 Instead of trying to downplay this history—liberals are all about “authentic” history unless it tarnishes one of their own patron saints—why not let it ride and instead use the point to discuss how and why Chavez eventually fought for the rights of all workers and to ensure that even unlawfully present workers got relief in the 1986 immigration reform?

 But no, that would make too much sense. I mean, who would actually agree to injecting any sliver of realism, pragmatism or factual precedent into our immigration debate? Sounds too much like compromise, I suppose, and neither Democrats nor Republicans seem at any risk of allowing this.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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