Cesar Chavez Belonged to a Vanishing Breed: The Pro-Borders Left

On the immigration hawk’s 95th birthday, as unlimited immigration has become an immutable value of the Left, let’s remember it wasn’t always this way.

By Mark Krikorian on March 31, 2022

National Review, March 31, 2022

Today is National Border Control Day, marking the 95th birthday of labor leader and immigration hawk Cesar Chavez. Although the anti-borders Left has adopted Chavez as a mascot, limiting the importation of foreign workers who competed with Americans was central to his pro-worker activism. In fact, he launched his famous boycotts of grapes and lettuce specifically because federal authorities, acting at the behest of agricultural interests, were turning a blind eye toward illegal immigration.

In a 1974 interview, Chavez said, “There’s an awful lot of illegals coming in. ... They’re coming in by the thousands, it’s just unbelievable. See, they’re coming in with the consent of the immigration service.”

Today’s landscape bears striking similarities to Chavez’s, with a few key differences.

Illegal aliens are still “coming in by the thousands,” dwarfing anything that Chavez could have imagined. Over the past several months, Border Patrol has been “encountering” — to use the Biden administration’s euphemism — about 5,000 border-jumpers each day, sneaking in from Mexico. For context, consider that President Obama’s DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that just 1,000 apprehensions a day “overwhelms the system.” (Anything more than that, and “we are truly in a crisis,” he added.)

For months, the administration has been availing itself of Title 42 — the Covid-related public-health order, which has been used to quickly bounce some illegals back without hearings. And yet according to various reports, the policy will be lifted on May 23. Its consequences are, of course, predictable. The Washington Post reported this week that DHS is preparing for as many as 18,000 illegal-alien apprehensions a day once Title 42 is no longer in force.

Again, much like Chavez’s experience, this traffic is happening “with the consent of the immigration service.” Most of the career staff of ICE and CBP are appalled by what’s going on, as you would expect from people sworn to uphold the law. It’s Biden and his appointees who are responsible for the border surge. Alien smugglers casually refer to the president’s rhetoric and policies as “La Invitación”: an invitation to illegal immigration.

But an important difference is that, in Chavez’s time, farmers seeking cheap, controllable labor, and their sympathizers in government (many of them Republicans), were the main drivers of pro-illegal immigration policies. While business interests are still an important part of the anti-borders cabal today, the motivations of the Biden administration are different.

Many on the right — Tucker Carlson and Deroy Murdock come to mind, but there are many others — believe the main reason the president and his party are promoting illegal immigration is to import future Democratic voters. I don’t think that’s quite right.

It’s not that Democrats don’t see political benefits from mass immigration, legal or illegal. That’s a big part of what the “Coalition of the Ascendant” blather was about. But there hasn’t been any rethink of policy in light of the more recent political developments suggesting that Democrats don’t necessarily have the lock on immigrant voters they thought they had.

That’s because the immigration views of today’s Democratic Party are based on principle, not political calculation. They genuinely believe that our nation’s immigration laws are illegitimate. They might concede that people coming from abroad should be subject to some public-health or criminal checks, but the notion that there should be limits on the number of foreigners allowed to move here is morally unacceptable. Even if some Democrats pay lip service to immigration limits, they are explicitly opposed to any steps that would actually enforce those limits.

In short, today’s mainstream Left does not believe that the American people have the right to keep anyone out.

It didn’t used to be this way. Sure, there were always anti-borders fanatics, but they used to be on the fringe. The views of the respectable Left were very different. In 1969, Senator Walter Mondale and Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor, Ralph Abernathy, joined Chavez in a march against illegal immigration. In 1990, Coretta Scott King joined with several other civil-rights leaders to stop an attempt by Ted Kennedy, Orrin Hatch, and the National Council of La Raza to make it legal again to hire illegal aliens. And in the mid 1990s, Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, headed a presidential commission calling for stricter enforcement of immigration laws and a reduction in legal immigration.

That’s all gone now. Long before Trump, Democratic officialdom and its constituency groups were radicalizing on immigration. The AFL-CIO, long the standard-bearer for immigration limits, switched sides in 2000. By the mid 2000s, the Sierra Club — the last environmental group critical of mass immigration — had also switched sides. Despite a long history dating back to the 19th century of black leaders opposing mass immigration, their successors today are lockstep behind the anti-borders agenda.

The last holdout was Bernie Sanders, who famously told Ezra Klein in 2015 that he was opposed to unlimited immigration: “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.” But in order to run for president in 2020, he too had to switch sides.

That’s because unlimited immigration has become an immutable value of the Left, a litmus-test issue as non-negotiable as abortion or gun control. The cheap-labor interests Chavez faced could be induced to change their behavior through economic pressure, like strikes or boycotts. But the Left’s quasi-religious support for unlimited immigration can’t be deflected by the means Chavez employed. We’ll see in November whether repudiation at the ballot box will make a difference.