The Volokh Conspiracy

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President Biden Honors One of the Most Influential Opponents of Illegal Immigration in American History

Cesar Chavez and his union were strongly opposed to illegal immigration, and illegal immigrants


Joe Biden is committed to providing a path to citizenship for the eleven million or so people living in the United States illegally. So it's rather ironic that he has placed a bust of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez in a prominent place in the Oval Office.

Chavez and his union, the United Farm Workers, were strongly opposed to illegal immigration, and Chavez was known to refer to undocumented workers by the slur "wetbacks." If you search the web, you will find a lot of revisionism going on about Chavez's attitude toward immigration, as his actual stance on immigration creates a dissonance with his heroic status on the left, given the latter's current dogma on immigration. (Chavez also played a leading role in killing the Bracero guest worker program, which had given hundreds of thousands of Mexicans the ability to lawfully but temporarily work in the United States).

This shouldn't be especially surprising, given that, for obvious reasons of self-interest in constraining labor supply labor unions until recently were typically opposed to immigration in general, and especially illegal immigration.

As historian Eladio B. Bobadilla explains:

Cesar Chavez was, in fact, deeply hostile toward "wetbacks," as he (and many others of this time) called them. He was relentless in his efforts to halt immigration from Mexico and was active in pursuing the deportation of those already here. Chavez claimed that undocumented workers were driving down wages, and crucially, being used as strikebreakers. Both complaints had merit, of course. Mexican immigrants were routinely used to break strikes; their desperate situation often led them to take whatever work they could get, even if it meant clashing with the UFW's goals. And certainly, all of these dynamics played a role in wage depression.

What is disturbing about Chavez and the union's actions is how rigid and unwilling they were to consider that the issue was more complicated. Some Chican@ [sic] organizations and leaders, among them Bert Corona, cautioned Chavez that alienating undocumented workers was a disastrous mistake. Others complained that Chavez was spending entirely too much of his (and the union's) efforts on the "Illegals Campaign." Others still worried that Chavez was making enemies of people who in fact were allies in this class and social struggle.

UPDATE: Also this: "Chavez ordered union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and report illegal immigrants who were working in the fields so that they could be deported. Some UFW officials were also known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants."

UPDATE: To clarify, this post is not about whether Democrats/liberals/progressives should be willing to honor Chavez for what they perceive as his achievements, even if they profoundly disagree with his views on immigration. Rather, my point is much more narrow: the president has at the top of his agenda helping undocumented workers, which makes it odd to give special prominence at the beginning of his term to a guy who was very much anti-undocumented workers. To take an analogous example, I don't expect Democrats to suddenly disavow FDR; but if President Biden's priority was admitting more refugees, or opposing discrimination against Americans whose loyalties some question based on ethnicity, it would be odd to give special prominence to FDR gratuitously.