Cesar Chavez's Legacy: Iconic Civil Rights Leader's Controversial Take On Illegal Immigration Rarely Explored

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Michael Harpold, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent, recalled driving in his green and white government van in the mid-1960’s that clearly identified his role to those who lived and worked in the area.

Suddenly, a man on the side of the road waved at him to stop.

The man, agent Harpold recalled, introduced himself as César Chavez, president of the National Farm Workers Association.

“Coming right to the point, Chavez said his members were complaining that the growers were hiring illegal aliens,” Harpold wrote in an article. “Chavez saw illegal immigrants as not only a threat to his union, but as having different interests than the U.S. workers he sought to organize. The illegals slipped across the border, worked for a short time, then returned to Mexico. They were interested only in wages, he said, and not the benefits important to domestic farm workers and families.”

It is a side of the labor rights leader that often is eclipsed, or rendered absent altogether, by the more defining image of him as a benevolent defender of farm workers and – by extension – immigrants, regardless of their legal status.

Chavez’s birthday on Sunday coincides with tributes to how Chavez, an Arizona-born descendant of Mexicans who toiled in fields as a migrant worker with his family, devoted his life to improving treatment and pay for farm workers.

Chavez’s ambivalence over – and sometimes apparent outright disdain for – undocumented immigrants also is drawing attention via new published works such as a new biography whose author, journalist Miriam Pawel, says shows the icon as the complex person that he was.

“It’s so complicated,” she said of Cesar’s handling of undocumented immigrants, in an interview with Fox News Latino. “The border was very different then. There was no militarization of the border, people crossed the border every day, very easily.”

Chavez practically lived – and even risked his health – to improve life for U.S. farm workers. He pushed and pushed to persuade reluctant workers to unionize. He launched boycotts and labor strikes. He staged several hunger strikes, including one that lasted 25 days.

His devotion, some say, led to an overzealous approach to those he perceived as undermining U.S. workers.

“He had very strong feelings about undocumented immigrants,” Pawel said.

“He launched the ‘Illegals Campaign’ in 1974, it was in the context of strike breakers and easy availability of people who were brought across the border [by U.S. employers] to replace striking workers.”

Chavez’s cousin, Manuel, started what was known as the “wet line,” a series of tents along a 25-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border along Arizona where some 300 members of what was then the United Farm Workers Union patrolled – to keep would-be border crossers out.

“Ostensibly, the ‘wet line’ existed to strengthen a citrus strike in the Yuma lemon groves by convincing Mexicans who might work as scabs to turn around and stay home,” Pawel wrote in her book.

But the patrols went beyond just monitoring the border for people who might be crossing illegally to replace striking workers, Pawel said.

“Stories had begun to surface about widespread violence and beatings along the ‘wet line,’” she said. There were also many reports, she said, of UFW members stealing from people crossing the border.

Pawel said that when confronted at the time about the reports of abuse by ‘wet line’ patrols, Cesar Chavez denied knowing about it or condoning it.

But, she wrote, “the willingness of illegal immigrants to voluntarily report crimes to U.S. authorities, generally unsympathetic to the migrants’ status, reflected the severity of the violence.”

A judge who sentenced two UFW members to probation said: “There is no justification for stopping these people, robbing them, beating them and throwing them back across the line,” Pawel wrote in her new book.

Pawel and others say that Cesar Chavez did direct union members to seek out suspected undocumented immigrants and report them to immigration officials.

“They found workers in fields all over Fresno” for instance, she said, “and reported them to [immigration officials].

Chavez granted an interview to KQED, the National Public Radio station in San Francisco, in which he expressed his disapproval of “wetbacks” who worked as scabs, and undermined U.S. workers.

Many unions, in fact, had strong objections to undocumented immigrants, seeing them as threats to American workers and their organizing efforts. Later, when their memberships began dwindling, they grew more supportive of immigration, and now many unions are at the forefront of pushing for laws that would help legalize undocumented workers.

Pawel said that for his part, Chavez had misgivings over immigrants in general.

“He was very wary of them,” she said, viewing them as not sharing his values “about what workers should want and aspire to.”

Chavez felt that workers should strive to live comfortable lives, but not be greedy and forget their communities or the plight of laborers.

“He felt that immigrants came just to make money,” she said, “and he had a real problem with it.”

At one time, Pawel’s book said, his comrade-in-arms, Dolores Huerta, who helped found the United Farm Workers Union with him, objected to the use of “wetback” and “illegal,” saying some people found those terms offensive.

“Chavez turned on Huerta angrily,” Pawel wrote. “No, a spade’s a spade,” her book quoted him as saying, “You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post last year, Huerta defended Chavez, saying the UFW helped undocumented immigrants fill out paperwork, and helped develop the 1986 amnesty that President Ronald Reagan signed into law. Almost three million people obtained amnesty through that program.

Huerta’s not the only one coming to Chavez’s defense, essentially arguing that his stance on illegal immigration did not overshadow his overall impact on Hispanic civil rights.

Jaime P. Martinez, founder and president of the Cesar E. Chavez Legacy and Educational Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, recalled the labor rights legend as a humble and big-hearted person who helped undocumented immigrants.

“He was a great humanitarian,” Martinez, who marched alongside Chavez, told Fox News Latino. “He felt about undocumented immigrants the way advocates feel right now. He fought for the poor, the disenfranchised.”

Chavez did get upset, he said, over the strike-breakers brought over by growers who did not want to improve working conditions for U.S. workers.

But Chavez’s union, Martinez insisted, was supportive of all Hispanics looking to improve their lot, including undocumented immigrants.

“There were people on strike who were undocumented,” he said. “He was a unique and humble leader. He was a strong believer in the principles of non-violence. He had to preserve the strike. But he was not against undocumented immigrants.”