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Cesar Chavez’s nuanced views on undocumented workers & immigration

Critics of Cesar Chavez resurrect 50-plus-year-old film clips where he used words like “illegal” or even “wetback.” Dolores Huerta observes Chavez considered himself a Chicano who came of age politically in the 1950s and ‘60s. “That’s just how Chicanos talked in those days,” she says. In later years, he stopped using such terms.

So did Cesar Chavez oppose undocumented immigrants and immigration? His views were nuanced.

  • Like every legitimate union and labor leader, the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez strongly opposed strikebreaking by anyone, no matter who they were or where they were from. Farm worker walkouts would have quickly been won in the fields if growers hadn’t recruited strikebreakers (or scabs) from outside their companies—and increasingly undocumented workers from outside the country—to take the jobs of striking field workers, forcing the UFW into bitter and protracted strikes and boycotts.

    During some UFW walkouts, strikers on picket lines who demanded immigration authorities take away undocumented scabs breaking strikes inside struck fields were themselves undocumented.

  • When it came to how the union was run and its immigration stands, no American union or labor leader embraced undocumented immigrants and immigration reform earlier and more consistency than the UFW and Cesar Chavez. Hardly any U.S. Latino-led organization won more benefits and protections or provided more services for undocumented workers over the decades.

—From its inception in 1962, the UFW always welcomed all workers into its ranks.

—When the UFW signed its first table grape contracts in 1970, Chavez rejected calls from some national labor leaders to check the immigration status of grape workers in unionized vineyards.

—In 1973, decades before most labor organizations acted similarly, the UFW was one of the first unions to oppose the “employer sanction,” the federal law making it illegal to hire the undocumented.

—In a 1974 letter to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper Chavez reaffirmed the UFW’s opposition to deporting undocumented immigrants, its support for legalization and the union’s opposition to growers using the undocumented to break farm workers’ strikes. In an April 1, 2021 post Latino Rebels cited the Chavez letter stating the undocumented are “our brothers and sisters, and the union’s position is that they should be allowed to enter the United States as legal residents. But they should not be used as strikebreakers.”

—The UFW insisted undocumented workers enjoy the same protections and rights as other farm workers when California’s pioneering farm labor law was enacted in 1975.

—The UFW played a key role working with growers in fashioning the amnesty provisions of the 1986 federal immigration reform law that let 1 million undocumented farm workers become legal residents.

—In 1992, the year before he died, Chavez organized walkouts by thousands of table grape workers who won their first industry-wide pay raise in years. By then, the work force was heavily undocumented.

—The UFW has spent years working with growers to create a stable workforce by allowing farm workers to adjust their immigration status and have a path to citizenship. On March 18, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a bipartisan vote, including 30 Republicans. Negotiated by the UFW, the nation’s major grower associations and lawmakers from both parties, it would let undocumented farm workers and their family members in this country now earn the legal right to permanently stay by continuing to work in agriculture.