Cesar Chavez Couldn’t Get the Feds to Enforce the Border, Either

By Mark Krikorian on March 28, 2024

National Review, March 28, 2024

“What the heck’s going on? It’s just — it’s a complete breakdown of the law. They’re not doing anything.”

This isn’t Donald Trump at a rally complaining about the Biden crowd’s maladministration of the border. It was Cesar Chavez’s assessment of immigration enforcement under an earlier Democratic administration, in a speech delivered 45 years ago at the National Press Club in Washington.

This Sunday, March 31, isn’t just Easter — it’s also National Border Control Day, i.e., Cesar Chavez’s birthday. And on his birthday, it’s worth reflecting on the difficulty in getting immigration laws enforced when powerful interests don’t want them to be.

For the past three years, the federal agency responsible for preventing illegal entry into the United States has instead been facilitating and even encouraging it. And for almost as long, Texas, with the majority of its border with Mexico, has been doing whatever it can think of to stymie illegal immigration.

Texas is thus reprising the role played by Chavez’s United Farm Workers union in the 1960s and 1970s, when it fought illegal immigration to protect the jobs and bargaining power of Americans workers — trying to compensate for the fact that Border Patrol was effectively prohibited from enforcing immigration laws. Chavez was battling large farming interests, while Texas is fighting policies promoted by the gentry Left, but the fight is the same: to see that the immigration laws passed by the people’s elected representatives are actually implemented.

Chavez’s opposition to illegal immigration wasn’t a minor detour on his road to the Left’s secular pantheon — it was at the core of his vision for labor organizing. In the mid ’70s, the UFW organized the “Campaign Against Illegals” which began with a petition circulated by the union, described this way by labor activist Frank Bardacke:

... calling on the Justice Department and the INS to enforce immigration laws and to “remove the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens now working in the fields.” The petition explained that “these illegals are breaking farm worker strikes, displacing farm workers from the jobs in the U.S. and depressing agricultural wages.”

The UFW also gathered intelligence on where illegal aliens were working and living — the union actually printed up and distributed forms for people to fill out if they had information on illegals, and then passed that information on to immigration officials. They refused to act on it. Later, in his 1979 speech at the National Press Club, Chavez named specific labor contractors and the specific farms they were providing with illegals. His level of detail left little room for ambiguity:

In Oxnard, Sun Harvest — 30 illegals housed at the Almost Hotel, corner of Date Street and Highway 1. If you go to rooms — after work, if you go to rooms 28, room 29, room 32 and room 53, collectively there are 30 illegals there.

Seems pretty credible, yet nothing happened.

Shortly after his National Press Club speech in 1979, Chavez testified at a U.S. Senate hearing in California, where the Washington Post reported on “Chavez’s charge that the growers and the immigration service are engaged in a conspiracy to provide illegal workers for the struck fields.”

When petitions and intelligence gathering and speeches weren’t getting results, Chavez had his ex-con cousin Manny take several hundred UFW members to the Arizona border to form what was called a “Wet Line” (as in a line against “wetbacks”) to physically prevent illegal aliens from crossing. They wore armbands saying “UFW Border Patrol” and policed the border with cars, dune buggies, even an airplane. While initially the effort was intended to target only strikebreakers, soon, in Bardacke’s words, “This UFW border patrol was stopping and turning back everyone they could find trying to cross, as by this time the UFW policy against all undocumented workers — strikebreakers or not — had been made very clear by Cesar Chavez, himself.” Chavez had said “We’re against illegals no matter where they work because if they are not breaking the strike they are taking our jobs.”

And unlike the Texas National Guard soldiers recently assaulted by a crowd of illegals in El Paso, as seen in the shocking New York Post video, Manny’s boys on the Wet Line were not constrained by any rules of engagement — border-jumpers who didn’t take the hint were often beaten up.

The sad coda to Chavez’s tenacious efforts at controlling illegal immigration came after his death in 1993 — the UFW switched sides and joined the Left (and much of the corporate and libertarian Right) in opposing immigration enforcement and supporting de facto unlimited immigration. And it has paid the price — as illegal immigration has increased, the UFW has become an asterisk, an irrelevancy. In California alone, there are upwards of half a million farmworkers, and yet the total membership of the UFW has steadily declined, from an already unimpressive 27,000 in 2000, to 10,000 in 2014, to fewer than 5,000 in 2023, according to U.S. Department of Labor reports.

Texas’s current efforts to enforce the border seem to have contributed to a shift in illegal traffic to Arizona and California. But, while that may be relieving some pressure on Texas, the nation as a whole continues to experience an unprecedented border crisis. Like Manny’s Wet Line, a locally focused effort to compensate for bad national policy can have only limited impact.

This should be a lesson to those seeking to reverse the Biden administration’s lawless immigration policies: Only by presenting border control as a broad national imperative — not a parochial one for a specific state or labor union — are immigration hawks likely to overcome the forces arrayed against them.

Chavez may have failed, but his failure may yet inspire success. Happy National Border Control Day!