GOP Congressman Wants to Repurpose Truth About Icon of the Left

Proposed resolution would declare Cesar Chavez's birthday 'National Border Control Day,' but confidante of late labor leader calls idea 'disrespectful'

For years, Mark Krikorian has tried to persuade Congress to link union leader Cesar Chavez’s birthday to recognition of his efforts to secure the border with Mexico.

This month, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took up the mantle, sponsoring a resolution to declare Chavez’s birthday — which is Saturday — as “National Border Control Day.”

Said Gohmert in a statement: “Cesar Chavez was best known for his passionate fight to gain better working environments for thousands of workers laboring in harsh conditions on farms for low wages. He also staunchly believed in sovereignty of the United States border.”

Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said he believes this is the first time a member of Congress has proposed recognizing Chavez’s immigration views in an official resolution.


“I’m glad somebody’s picked it up,” he said.

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Krikorian, whose organization favors tighter border security and lower levels of legal immigration, said Chavez saw mass migration as a tool of big agricultural businesses to drive down wages.

“He got the basic law of supply and demand,” he said. “He understood that in his bones because he was out there picking tomatoes as a teenager with his family and couldn’t make any money.”

But to labor activists who spent time with the late co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, the immigration narrative pushed by Gohmert is a pack of lies.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and false narratives out there,” said Marc Grossman, who was Chavez’s press secretary, speechwriter, and personal aide. “For Congress and other groups to use his name to push this narrative is dishonest and disrespectful.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also lambasted the proposal.

“For Rep. Gohmert to twist and warp the legacy of Cesar Chavez is offensive, shameful and beyond the pale of normal logic,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), who chairs the caucus, said in a statement.

Breaking Strikes 
Grossman, who knew Chavez for the last 24 years of his life and now serves as a spokesman for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, told LifeZette that the union organizer welcomed everyone into the UFW — regardless of national origin or legal status. He said Chavez focused his efforts at blocking strikebreakers, whether they be citizens or noncitizens.

Chavez rejected calls in 1970 to check the immigration status of workers in the vineyard fields when the union negotiated a table grape contract, Grossman said.

Grossman said UFW was the first major union to oppose a 1973 law — still on the books — that makes it illegal for businesses to hire illegal immigrants.

What’s more, Grossman said, the union helped negotiate the 1986 law that granted amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal immigrants.

“Cesar insisted the law protect all farmworkers, including the undocumented,” he said.

The narrative that Chavez opposed immigration, Grossman said, comes from a misreading of his fights against strikebreaking tactics of employers. He said Chavez opposed the Bracero Program, a guest worker initiative begun during World War II that brought foreign workers into the United States to work the fields.

Grossman sad the program exploited foreign laborers and hurt American farmworkers. Chavez remained a critic of the H-2A visa program, which succeeded the Bracero Program.

Employers have abused guest-worker programs to dilute the strength of unions, Grossman said.

“Growers have been breaking farmworkers’ strikes for 100 years,” he said.

“It was a complete whitewash of what the guy was like.”

But supporters remain undeterred. In announcing he was introducing the resolution, Gohmert pointed to a 1979 speech Chavez delivered at the National Press Club in Washington in which “he demanded that the federal government enforce the immigration laws and keep illegal aliens out of the country.”

Krikorian accused the modern Left of revisionism and pointed to a 2014 biopic on Chavez that ignored his immigration views.

“It was a complete whitewash of what the guy was like,” he said.

Meaning of Chavez’s ‘Wetbacks’ Use Debated 
In a 1972 interview with a California television station, Chavez talked about the difficulty of maintaining a strike.

“They’ve been unable to get strikebreakers, or very few, and then all of the sudden, yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks. These are the illegals, from Mexico,” he said.

The 2011 book “Tramping Out of the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers,” author Frank Bardacke documents the “Campaign Against Illegals” that Chavez oversaw in 1974. He quotes a memo from Chavez to UFW entities describing a “massive campaign to get the recent flood of illegals out of California.”

The memo stated: “We consider this campaign to be even more important than the strike, second only to the boycott. If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight.”

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said it is open borders proponents who are distorting Chavez’s record.

Related: Trump Could Tap Pentagon Funds to Kick-Start Border Wall Construction

“Advocates for illegal immigration and amnesty have sort of co-opted Cesar Chavez’s legacy … He was pretty adamant about what he felt about what the impact of illegal immigration would be on the union workers he represented,” he said. “He’s been proved right.”

But Grossman said immigration critics “resurrect these 50-year-old quotes” by Chavez using terms like “wetback” to create a false image.

“That’s just how they talked in those days,” he said.

In later years, Grossman said, Chavez’s language evolved. But he said the union’s welcoming attitude toward all farm laborers regardless of immigration status did not change. Chavez instilled that philosophy at the beginning of the union, he said.

“There was no American union leader or organization to champion immigrant rights earlier or more consistently than Cesar Chavez,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage image: Cesar Chavez Visita a Colegio, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Movimiento)

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