For a significant period of his storied career as a labor organizer, Cesar Chavez opposed illegal immigration.
He encouraged union members to join "wet lines" along the Arizona-Mexico border to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S. He accused immigration agents at the border of letting in undocumented immigrants to undermine the labor efforts of Latino farmworkers.
People who favor less immigration have latched on to this as proof that unions shouldn't support rights for undocumented immigrants. Some restrictionists will probably say more of the same this Wednesday, as workers around the country rally for immigration reform.
But Chavez's history with immigration is more complex.
In some sense, his views on immigration followed the trajectory of other groups concerned with Mexican American rights, like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
UC San Diego Professor David Gutiérrez lays things out in his book Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity.
Until the 1970s, groups like LULAC generally went along with U.S. immigration policy.
But positions began to evolve as Congress considered bills that would make it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. More importantly, Gutiérrez writes, Chicano activists started pushing more established organizations to support immigrant rights.
One young activist wrote about the issue in a Chicano newspaper in Los Angeles in 1972:
"It is claimed that illegals cause high unemployment of residents; that they oppose the formation of unions; that they drain residents' incomes by adding to welfare costs; that they add to the tax burden by needing special programs."
"These are fake claims," he argued. "Illegals...do not create unemployment of Chicanos, employers desiring to pay the lowest possible wages do."
Over time, the views of the younger activists trickled up to older, more established organizations like LULAC.
In 1971, for example, a former LULAC president testified before Congress about the divide on immigration. He said that Mexican Americans were "torn between two desires, the desire to be good to our brothers who come from across the border and suffer so much when they are here trying to get ahead, and our desire to have those that are here as citizens advance in our society and become better adjusted to American life with the benefits of American life."
From when he co-founded United Farm Workers in 1962 with Dolores Huerta, Chavez took a hard line on illegal immigration. He thought employers would use undocumented workers as strike breakers, and that temporary workers would undermine the wages of Mexican American residents and citizens. He even reported some undocumented workers to immigration authorities, Gutiérrez writes.
But through the early 1970s, it became clear that Chavez's position was out-of-step with other Mexican American rights groups.
In 1974, the government announced a plan to deport a million undocumented immigrants, and the Attorney General said the plan had the support of United Farm Workers. Chicano activists erupted, and Chavez denied supporting the proposal.
He explained his shifting position later that year in a November 22 letter to the editor, published in the San Francisco Examiner.
"[T]he illegal aliens are doubly exploited, first because they are farm workers, and second because they are powerless to defend their own interests," he wrote. "But if there were no illegals being used to break our strikes, we could win those strikes overnight and then be in a position to improve the living and working conditions of all farm workers."
He promised that United Farm Workers would support legalization for the undocumented, "our brothers and sisters."
Chavez wasn't alone in changing his ideology, Gutiérrez writes. In fact, his shift from an immigration restrictionist to an "amnesty" supporter reflected the greater movement in Mexican American rights.
A Los Angeles union official at the time summed up this new mindset, saying that Mexican Americans who continued to support restrictive immigration policies "should realize that they would not be here if their fathers had not been illegal aliens," which Gutiérrez says was true for a large portion of people at that time.