Donald Trump ran for the US presidency on the backs of undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, calling them criminals and promising to build a border wall across the entire length of the United States-Mexico border to keep them out. As Trump issues executive orders and unveils his Congressional proposals for immigration enforcement as an integral part of his initial “100-day action plan,” that timeline intersects with what would have been the 90th birthday of labor rights champion César Chávez on 31 March 2017. As have some staunch opponents of undocumented immigration, such as Lou Dobbs, I anticipate in the coming policy battles that Trump might draw on Chávez’s legacy to support his restrictive proposals to deny immigrant entry. Dobbs, for example, contended that Chávez objected to “illegal immigration with all of his heart and all of his energy.” These immigration opponents might point to Chávez’s union members having patrolled the border at times in the late 1960s and early 1970s during borderlands labor strikes to confront undocumented Mexican workers crossing to serve complicit US employers as strikebreakers. Might the Chávez UFW union legacy be appropriated to argue that Mexican workers must be stopped by any means from crossing the border to come here and “steal” jobs?
Such a revisionist history would misconstrue what was a far more complicated and evolving posture of César Chávez on the subject of Mexican undocumented immigration. The UFW union members who confronted and discouraged entering strikebreakers in the borderlands did so against the backdrop of a far less policed border that predated the obsessive securitization that President Bill Clinton oversaw and others continued. Strikebreakers could once readily cross the border on roads that connected Mexico and the United States in populated areas to replace the striking union workers in nearby fields. Crossing the border then was not a deadly gauntlet of entry that Trump proposes to make even more treacherous with longer and higher walls and more border officers.
Moreover, as UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta explained to me in 2007, “The whole thing is we wanted people not to break the strike, period. We’re not against people who are undocumented. We just don’t want them to break our strike.” Chávez recognized the hypocrisy of INS immigration officials, who would look the other way to protect farmers when they employed undocumented workers as labor strikebreakers, but would deport the workers once the crops were picked or if they joined the UFW strike. Chávez alleged the Nixon administration and the growers conspired to limit immigration enforcement in the fields, so long as the migrants were useful to the growers, in the ongoing cycle of the invitation and exile of Mexican workers seen by too many US employers as implements rather than as humans.
Chávez recognized the precarity of the undocumented worker as exactly suiting the needs of employers hoping to suppress unionization in their workforce. An undocumented worker, actively recruited as a strikebreaker, would be unlikely to defect to the union side or complain about workplace injustices, and if the worker did, the employer could count on immigration officials to oust the worker at its urging. Chávez and the UFW accordingly championed amnesty for undocumented workers, as well as easing restrictive immigration limits and hurdles for those future entrants seeking status as lawful permanent residents or ultimately as US citizens. In contrast, Trump has called for the ouster of the current undocumented population and cranked up internal immigration raids, while not suggesting any expansion of lawful migration. Rather, he appears to support a downsizing of lawful immigration limits, particularly for refugees and those who come with little education or economic status. Nor is Trump any friend of unions or labor.
On the subject of mass deportation, Chávez wrote in a 1974 editorial of the San Francisco Examiner that the UFW opposed the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, most of them from Mexico. Rather, Chávez advocated amnesty and supported immigrant efforts to obtain lawful status and equal rights, including the right to unionize. While resisting their use as strikebreakers—who the union opposed regardless of their migration or citizenship status, Chávez urged federal immigration reform to allow current undocumented migrants to gain protection as legal residents in their employment and everyday lives.
As immigrant advocates prepare for the tempest ahead under Trump, we should celebrate the vision of César Chávez, who fought for the dignity of all workers, rather than warp his legacy to turn it against the most vulnerable of laborers—undocumented immigrants. With the volume of hostility toward immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, increasing after Chávez’s death, we have devolved from a “nation of immigrants” to one that betrays the ideal of equality of opportunity for migrants to seek lawful status in their road away from precarity and toward dignity and the American Dream. Richard Chávez, César’s brother, once told me that César, if still alive, would be “right in the middle of it” today fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants. We should fight that battle for him.
Feliz cumpleaños, César, on the occasion of your 90th.
Featured image credit: “A Wall with a Mission” mural of César Chávez in San Fernando, CA. Chris English. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.