Labor Secretary Thomas Perez invoked the late labor leader Cesar Chavez in an official statement, citing his "vision and moral example" should be used to, among other things, "fixing our broken immigration system." Left out of the statement was that Chavez was an outspoken opponent of immigration.
Chavez was the founder of the United Farm Workers in 1962. His efforts organizing poor Latinos in Southern California made him a highly regarded figure in labor and civil rights circles. His birthday, which is today, is a state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado.
In a statement released Friday, Perez called Chavez, who died in 1993, a "heroic and iconic labor leader, a gifted practitioner of the politics of protest and boycott, a man of towering strength and indescribable courage (and) one of our history's leading humanitarians and civil rights giants." Perez even calls him one of the "greatest Americans of the 20th century."
The labor secretary's comments obscure the fact that Chavez believed — like many other Big Labor leaders of his era — that illegal immigrants created unfair competition for native-born Americans. He therefore viewed pro-immigration policies as benefiting Big Agriculture at the expense of the workers he represented.
In a 2005 column, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette noted that Chavez was not passive in his opposition either:
Despite the fact that Chávez is these days revered among Mexican-American activists, the labor leader in his day was no more tolerant of illegal immigration than the Arizona Minutemen are now. Worried that the hiring of illegal immigrants drove down wages, Chávez – according to numerous historical accounts – instructed union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report the presence of illegal immigrants in the fields and demand that the agency deport them. UFW officials were even known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
According to Navarrette, in 1973 the union even tried to enforce the border on its own: "UFW members tried at first to convince the immigrants not to cross. When that didn't work, they physically attacked the immigrants and left some bloody in the process."
That was, of course, four decades ago. Both the civil rights and labor movements have since adopted the kinds of positions on immigration that Chavez would have staunchly opposed. They also appear determined to let this aspect of Chavez's legacy fall down the memory hole.