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Joe Guzzardi: Would Cesar Chavez back immigration reform?

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Joe Guzzardi

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Earlier this month, 11 “Pathway to Citizenship” pilgrims arrived in Lodi on their march from Sacramento to Bakersfield. On Labor Day, they’ll protest outside House Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office, demanding immigration reform. McCarthy’s district includes Bakersfield.

Two weeks ago, the United Farm Workers orchestrated a similar Bakersfield protest. Hundreds were bused into Bakersfield from Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley to press McCarthy to use his House influence to win over skeptical Republicans.

The protesters often invoked Cesar Chavez’s memory. Chavez co-founded the UFW with Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong more than 50 years ago. Since his death, the Arizona-born Chavez has become a cultural icon. Chavez’s birthday is a state holiday in California, Arizona and Texas. City streets and high schools bear Chavez’s name. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Chavez’s image. Chavez had a unique ability to form multiracial coalitions that included Mexicans, Filipinos and Americans to work toward a collective good.

Today, the UFW and Huerta remain active in their ongoing effort to win citizenship for illegal immigrants. But if Chavez, who died in 1994, were still alive, he may not have been part of the demonstration.

Time has erased the irony that for most of his storied career as a labor organizer, Cesar Chavez opposed illegal immigration. Chavez knew that when the labor pool expands — illegal immigration’s primary effect — workers suffer either through lower wages or lost jobs.

In May 1974, Chavez proposed his “Campaign Against Illegals.” In a memo he sent to all UFW offices, Chavez informed his staff that the UFW was about to embark on a “massive campaign to get the recent flood of illegals out of California.” Chavez distributed forms to staff to use to report illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He also urged his members to call Congress to protest illegal immigration and to campaign for their deportation. Eventually, Chavez twice testified before Congress about illegal immigration’s detrimental effects on American workers.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 1979, Chavez demanded that the federal government take its duty to keep illegal immigrants out of the fields and out of the country seriously. He boldly stated that if “my mother was breaking the strike and if she were illegal, I’d ask the same thing.”

The reason, Chavez explained, is that picket lines and unions are about wage levels and employment opportunities. Combating illegal immigration is about economic issues: “It’s not a political game.” Chavez added: “People are being hurt and being destroyed with the complicity of the federal government.”

When Congress returns from its August recess to debate a possible immigration bill, Chavez’s commitment to his workers should set an example for the legislators. Enforcing the nation’s immigration laws is not, as Chavez put it, a “political game” played to placate the self-interests of racial, ethnic and religious groups, or to be used as a political wedge issue to pacify, or to divide specific voting blocks, or to function as a rallying cry for demagogic street activists to push their private agendas.

Ridding the labor market of illegal immigrant workers is about the economic well-being of the nation’s most needy: low-skilled native-born and legal immigrant workers.

In June, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act that would authorize the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S to work legally. The bill would also add 20 million overseas workers during the next two decades.

Despite the unarguable math, the UFW supports the legislation. Chavez, were he alive, would not. And in exchange for opposing the bill, Chavez would likely have been vilified as a racist.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He taught English as a second language. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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Joe Guzzardi