I did write back to a few people complaining about my "Tom gets down with the youthful protesters" column (April 13), asking a couple simple questions, including: Exactly how many people should be allowed into this country each year? a.) None; b.) A finite number of your choosing; or c.) Everyone who wants to come in. I'll let you know their answers if they ever write back.
Several people took me to task for my suggestion that Cesar Chavez, were he alive today, would not have been at the forefront of the demonstrations that have taken place in many U.S. cities.
An entire classroom of students wrote to me, stating that Chavez is the very symbol of the struggling immigrant and most certainly would have been tuned in to the plight of those who entered this country in ways other than through official means.
While the gutless Congress might or might not take up the contentious issue of immigration reform before the election, we can at least clear up the side issue of Cesar Chavez. The man has been dead for 13 years, and there is clearly no way of knowing exactly what he would have done in this political climate. Indeed, he did become a tad eccentric in his final years. But there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he would have done a 180-degree turn from the way he lived his entire adult, public life.
Here are the facts, whether you like them or not:
· Cesar Chavez was NOT an immigrant, no matter how hard wishful-thinking people try to portray him as such. He was a second-generation American. His family began homesteading near Yuma not that long after the American Civil War.
· While some have morphed his memory into some sort of ethnic and cultural icon, it was as a labor leader that he wanted to be known. This he publicly stated on occasions too numerous to count.
· And here are the biggies: Not only did he absolutely despise the guest-worker (Bracero) program of the day; he also actively worked against illegal immigration.
The Bracero (from the Spanish word, "brazo," for "arm") Program was begun in 1942 to provide cheap agricultural labor when many American men were heading off to war. It should have ended in 1946, at the latest, but powerful people conspired with lackeys in government to keep it going for almost another 20 years. Only after Edward R. Murrow's televised documentary Harvest of Shame did Congress reluctantly pull the plug. Chavez is quoted as having said that his United Farm Workers movement began the day that the Bracero program ended.
There is no way that Chavez would have supported a return to that which suppresses wages and exploits human beings.
What will be even more disheartening to some is that not only did Chavez disapprove of the flow of Mexican citizens over the border into the United States; he actively worked against it. As early as 1969, just five years into his movement, Chavez led a march to the Mexican border to protest illegal immigration.
The United Farm Workers routinely picketed the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, demanding that the U.S.-Mexico border be closed. Arizona Republic columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. once wrote, "Cesar Chavez, a union leader intent on protecting union membership, was as effective a surrogate for the INS as ever existed. Indeed, Chavez and the UFW he headed routinely reported to the INS, for deportation, suspected illegal immigrants ... ."
In 1979, Chavez even testified to Congress about this, stating, "When the farm workers strike and the strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers. And, for over 30 years, the INS has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking."
So, shame on those of you who would twist a man's legacy to suit the agenda of the politics of the moment. And shame on Ted Kennedy for supporting what amounts to the official institutionalization of a sub-class of people, one step up from slave labor, serving only to suppress wages and to help the rich get richer. The idea of a "guest worker program" should be repugnant to most Americans and to all Democrats. And to try to misuse Chavez's name in such a push is like calling for the Martin Luther King Memorial White Bathroom--No Negroes Allowed.
I sincerely consider Cesar Chavez to be one of the great men of my lifetime, and I urge others to join me in my respect for a man who conducted his life according to high ideals. But if you are going to honor and revere the man, at least do so for the right reasons.