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'Grape pickers' or 'wetbacks'? Nothing has really changed in thirty years

Chavev, Abernathy and others
Chavev, Abernathy and others
Library of Congress

In the past couple of days, immigration legislation was killed, then revived, in both houses of Congress, even as one Senator got the House of Representatives to approve his Victims of Child Abuse Act. The bill deals with how to take care of the 60,000 plus immigrants who showed up on America’s doorstep recently.

Wheeling, dealing Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who helped kill one bill and pass another, (according to a news release and statement on his website) characterized the Obama solution to the immigration issue as: unilateral executive amnesty for 5-6 million illegal immigrants - work permits, taking jobs directly from millions of struggling American citizens.

Sessions said, “After years of falling wages and rising joblessness, American workers are pleading for someone to hear them.” The House and Senate are scrambling to pass something before the August recess. But, as this article will show, America has been scrambling to pass something – anything – for decades.

Ralph Abernathy, Walter Mondale and Cesar Chavez – as ironic a trio as the Three Amigos – marched, 35 years ago, from Coachella Valley to Calexico to protest grape and tomato growers’ use of undocumented immigrants. Chavez had famously formed the United Farm Workers to increase wages for grape pickers. Abernathy, a minister, had marched with MLK to increase rights for Blacks, and Mondale who later became Jimmy Carter’s Veep… well, Mondale was there for political gain.

Later, another politic machine named Ted Kennedy would join them on other marches.

Chavez told the Los Angeles Times, “The reason for our march is to make it clear to our brothers across the border that we don’t blame them for crossing the border….they come here for jobs… but we want them to join the union to get the protection they need.”

On a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreakers; some interpreted the actions as being anti-immigrant. In a 1969 march, Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This examiner asked the Library of Congress to do a literary search of how the newspapers reported it, and a wonderful librarian obliged.

“Later, in 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a “wet line” along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW’s unionization efforts,” wrote Mario Garcia, in his book Memories of Chicano History. During one such event, in which Chavez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chavez’s cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers after peaceful attempts to persuade them not to cross the border failed. Cesar Chavez wanted the federal government to close the border. He also wanted to send suspected illegal immigrants to immigration officials, and put his brother in charge of Minutemen-like border patrols which on more than one occasion resulted in the beatings of intruders.

Garcia quoted Chavez as saying, "Our potential competition appears almost unlimited as thousands upon thousands of green carders pour across the border during peak harvest seasons. These are people who, though lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence, have not now, and probably never had, any bona fide intention of making the United States of America their permanent home. They come here to earn American dollars to spend in Mexico where the cost of living is lower. They are natural economic rivals of those who become American citizens or who otherwise decide to stake out their future in this country.”

The critically acclaimed Harvest of Shame documentary on CBS, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, was inspired by these border issues and on a Thanksgiving night, Murrow’s documentary underscored the plight of migrant farm workers in America, including harsh living conditions, endless travel, low wages, and poor opportunities for their children.

According to a 2006 article in The American Conservative Steve Sailer wrote that “although Chavez's union, the United Farm Workers, did manage to raise wages significantly for stoop laborers from 1965 to 1981, those gains have largely disappeared for one reason: illegal immigration.”

In a 1972 television interview with KQED, Chavez used the word “wetbacks” to describe the influx of illegals wanting to do farm work. “Chavez actually fought illegal immigration, and its use by wealthy farmers to keep wages of American (mostly Hispanic) farmworkers low,” according to the KQED archive. In this video clip, he’s talking about why the UFW did its famous grape boycott: “As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes as strikes are won normally by other unions…” See:

The Christian Science Monitor reported in May 1969 that a “dusty band of farm unionists, joined by an estimated 900 others” on a 100 mile march, near El Centro in 106 degree heat, merged with Abernathy, Mondale and Chavez, and met Ted Kennedy – who was waiting there for them.

The Los Angeles Times reported in May 1969 – the same day comedian Dick Gregory was released from jail for charges related to protesting school desegregation, and the same day the paper reported former South Viet Nam leader Nguyen Ngoc paid his own way to Walter Reed Hospital for war wounds – that the Three Amigo march included a statement by Ralph Abernathy, “The time will come when we have a black, brown, red or white president who will listen to our problems. The white man’s establishment plan to divide Mexican and Blacks will not work because su lucha es mi lucha,” (my battle is your battle).

After meeting in an air conditioned room for a rest, Chavez emerged with Abernathy and said, “The poor peoples’ struggle must remain non-violent.”

The Chicago Daily Defender reported that the “march was part of a continuing fight against unwholesome employment practices of farm workers.”

The L.A. Times continued, “The union says the workers are being used as strikebreakers by growers.”

The New York Times quoted Chavez as saying, “we were swamped by a flood of green carders brought up from the border on trucks by the grape growers.” Ironically Mondale was quoted as saying, “Many commuters were United States citizens who apparently found the cost of living cheaper on the Mexican side,” and that he wondered if Congress had the power to limit their movement.

In November 1969, the New York Times reported that Chavez did not like the other new movement – La Raza – because it denigrated non-Mexicans… and, Chavez said he was glad they were able to have a peaceful march… one of Chavez’ aids said his hero was Gandhi but he acted Machiavellian… students in Boston threw grapes in the harbor – a sort of tea party… grape sales plummeted 50-percent. News photographers showed President Nixon eating grapes, in support of the growers.

Last month, CNN’s poll showed Americans believe the main focus of immigration policy should be border security first and legal status for immigrants second.

Also in July, Niko Letsos, a candidate for U.S. Representative, from Texas’ District 2 opined: A growing majority of Americans want comprehensive immigration reform passed. And yet, there is no prospect for such a reform because Congress cannot get its act together.”

Many thanks to the Library of Congress for locating historical articles for this report.

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