Cesar Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union and was a staunch opponent of illegal immigration and La Raza's radical policies. That has not stopped both organizations from joining pro-amnesty groups in using a new movie about the late labor leader to push amnesty.
The UFW will screen the film, Cesar Chavez, next week, and Mark Zuckerberg's FWD.us, formed to pressure Congress to pass amnesty legislation, will also be showing the film in four cities. President of UFW, Arturo Rodriguez, told Fusion that he hopes the film inspires people to "go out and do work on the issues that are very important to America." He included immigration reform among those issues.
Even President Barack Obama tried to use a screening of the movie at the White House last week to push immigration reform. "And today, we’ve got labor leaders and CEOs and faith leaders and law enforcement, and they’ve come together and they’ve said it’s time to fix this broken immigration system," Obama said.
But Chavez was so opposed to amnesty that even the film's producers, who have a history of making politicized movies, decided, out of respect, to steer clear of the subject. As The New York Times noted, Participant Media, which produced the film, has a "fondness for films about social issues." The company made Lincoln as a statement about bipartisanship, The Help to "highlight the plight of domestic workers," and Promised Land as a "call for environmental action" against fracking.
But the producers avoided immigration reform in the movie because Chavez "fought for better wages and conditions for workers but held complex and evolving views on the status of unauthorized immigrants, some of which would be at odds with the changes many Hispanics and others are seeking today."
In a 2010 piece, Ruben Navarrette, Jr., who has "studied and written about Chavez and the United Farm Workers ... for more than 20 years" and supports comprehensive immigration reform, was more blunt. Navarrette "also grew up in the same San Joaquin Valley where so much of the UFW drama played out." He said that "the historical record shows that Chavez was a fierce opponent of illegal immigration, and so it’s unlikely that he’d have looked favorably on a plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants."
Chavez also wanted stiffer sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants during the debate over the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
"I support comprehensive immigration reform," Navarrette wrote. "But it is absurd for anyone to invoke the name of Cesar Chavez to pass immigration reform. As I said, were he alive today, it’s a safe bet that Chavez would be an opponent of any legislation that gave illegal immigrants even a chance at legal status."
Navarrette wrote that according to numerous historical accounts, "Chavez ordered union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and report illegal immigrants who were working in the fields so that they could be deported."
He said, "Some UFW officials were also known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants," and Chavez, because he was "primarily a labor leader," was concerned with "keeping illegal immigrants from competing with and undercutting union members either by accepting lower wages or crossing picket lines."
"When he pulled workers out of the field during a strike, the last thing he wanted was a crew of illegal immigrant workers showing up to do those jobs and take away his leverage," Navarrette wrote of Chavez.
In 1973, the UFW even "set up what union officials called a 'wet line' to stop Mexican immigrants from entering the United States. Under the supervision of Chavez’s cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to convince immigrants not to cross the border":
When that didn’t work, they physically attacked the immigrants. Covering the incident at the time, the Village Voice said that the UFW was engaged in a “campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net.” A couple of decades later, in their book The Fight in the Fields, Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval recalled the border violence and wrote that the issue of how to handle illegal immigration was “particularly vexing” for Chávez.
Chavez also was no fan of La Raza, which, too, has invoked Chavez's name and legacy to push amnesty legislation.
“I hear more and more Mexicans talking about la raza—to build up their pride, you know,” Chavez told Peter Matthiessen, the co-founder of the Paris Review, for a profile piece in The New Yorker in 1969. "Some people don’t look at it as racism, but when you say ‘la raza,’ you are saying an anti-gringo thing, and it won’t stop there."
Today it’s anti-gringo, tomorrow it will be anti-Negro, and the day after it will be anti-Filipino, anti-Puerto Rican. And then it will be anti-poor-Mexican, and anti-darker-skinned Mexican. We had a stupid guy who just wanted to play politics with the union, and he began to whip up la raza against the white volunteers, and even had some of the farm workers and the pickets and the organizers hung up on la raza. So I took him on. These things have to be met head on.