President Barack Obama promoted comprehensive immigration reform before a screening of the new biopic “Cesar Chavez” at the White House on Wednesday, but he didn’t mention the views of the famous farm labor leader on illegal immigration and border security.
That’s likely because the National Farm Workers Association cofounder was strongly against illegal immigration.
“Cesar Chavez once said when you have people together that believe in something very strongly, whether it’s religion or politics, or unions, things happen,” Obama said. “Today we’ve got labor leaders and CEOs and faith leaders and law enforcement and they’ve come together and said it’s time to fix this broken immigration system.”
The Obama administration supports a Senate-passed bill that would bestow legal status on some 11 million illegal immigrants and increase border security. The bill has dim prospects of passing the House.
On Nov. 5, 2009, then-Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) noted Chavez’s activism against illegal border crossings on the House floor.
“Cesar Chavez was probably a good, well, 20 years ahead of his time,” Bilbray said. “In fact, Cesar Chavez in 1969 led the first march on the Mexican border to protest illegal immigration. He was accompanied by Walter Mondale and Ralph Abernathy at that time to alert all to the problems that were equating with illegal immigration at that time.”
Mondale was a senator who went on to become vice president. Abernathy was a pastor and civil rights leader.
A decade after that march, Chavez testified in front of the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee about the problems of illegal immigration as an avenue for employers breaking strikes.
“For so many years we have been involved in agricultural strikes; organizing almost 30 years as a worker, as an organizer, and as president of the union—and for all these almost 30 years it is apparent that when the farm workers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike,” Chavez told senators. “And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking.”
Chavez told the Senate panel, “I do not remember one single instance in 30 years where the immigration service has removed strikebreakers.”
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has since been reformatted as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We have observed all these years the Immigration Service has a policy as it has been related to us, that they will not take sides in any agricultural labor dispute,” Chavez said in his 1979 testimony. “They have not taken sides means permitting the growers to have unrestricted use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers, and if that isn’t taking sides, I don’t know what taking sides means.”
The Chavez testimony came after a farm worker strike ensued in January 1970 in California’s Imperial Valley, which borders Mexico. The United Farm Workers was seeking a 42 percent pay increase from growers over three years for the striking farm workers, and placed patrols on the border to prevent “unauthorized strikebreakers” from entering the country, according to the conservative nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies.
The UFW would later change its position in 2000 on illegal immigration at the urging of the AFL-CIO, which wanted to end employer sanctions.
During the White House press briefing Wednesday, a reporter asked if the movie screening will bring attention to the issue of immigration reform.
“I think the place that Cesar Chavez has in our history, the outstanding place that he holds, is separate and apart from any policy,” Carney said.
Carney didn’t answer another reporter’s follow up question from about Chavez’s view on immigration reform.
The Center for Immigration Studies report quoted labor organizer Bert Corona, an ally of the UFW, saying: “I did have an important difference with Cesar. This involved his, and the union’s position, on the need to apprehend and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were being used as scabs by the growers.”
Corona added, “[I] believed that organizing undocumented farmworkers was auxiliary to the union’s efforts to organize the fields. We supported an open immigration policy, as far as Mexico was concerned.”
In October 2012, Obama spoke at the dedication of a national monument for Chavez in Keene, Calif. In 2011, Obama declared March 31 to be Cesar Chavez Day.