Chávez and the Immigration Question

This is a paper I wrote in late 2018. It is the result of two months of research and drafting.

Within the last decade, the early ambitions of César Chávez and his United Farm Workers labor union have been called into question by people across the political spectrum. Chávez has achieved the status of a demigod for his utilization of strikes and boycotts within the labor movement to advance the conditions of farm workers throughout the southwestern United States since the early 1960s. However, there have been newfound concerns raised about his attitude and policies regarding undocumented laborers who did not belong to any unions. Those adhering to the conservative brand of politics commonly purport that Chávez “hated illegals” and worked against them in order to keep unionized Mexican-American laborers from working and having higher wages. Those with more liberal politics defend Chávez’s civil rights legacy by claiming the conservative position is false and that he only supported blocking undocumented immigrants when they entered the American labor market as strikebreakers, or “scabs.” This dichotomy of opinion intrigued me for years as I currently attend a college campus with a bronze statue of Chávez at its center. My research seeks to find a balance between these two opposing viewpoints.

Earlier this year, Ana Raquel Minian, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford, published Undocumented Lives.[1] This monograph shows how Mexican workers in the 1970s were allowed to temporarily move north into the United States to work fields and send money home, but by the mid-1980s the United States began to embrace anti-immigration policies and this forced many undocumented workers to stay north of the border. They feared leaving the US because it was more than likely they would be unable to return. The prevailing sentiment of Mexican migrant workers toward the United States was that it was a “juala de oro,” or a cage of gold. Undocumented Lives approaches this issue by analyzing both the economic and political policies of Mexico and the United States. This book contributes to my research paper because it provides context for Mexican migrant workers who entered the American job market without union affiliation. Minian details how unionized workers and other similar organizations feared that migrant workers threatened the job security of American citizens. These fearful and ambivalent groups included César Chávez’s United Farm Workers and the NAACP. Further, I will use this book to show how unions and the US government treated Mexican migrant workers. My research paper will differ from Minian’s work because she does not focus on Chávez and the UFW’s policies toward immigration.

Matt Garcia, the Director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, published his monograph The Jaws of Victory in 2012.[2]  In this book, Garcia presents the reader with both the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers Union led by César Chávez. Garcia documents the worker movement using social history and concentrates mostly on the union’s goals and tactics, Chávez’s character development, and studies of other key figures within the movement. The book includes an analysis of the progress concerning labor contracts sought by Chávez and his union. This book differs from my first secondary source because its focus is solely on the UFW while keeping all else, such as the guest workers from Mexico, in the background. Garcia’s research will help my research paper in that he shows the internal politics of the union and its leaders, specifically César Chávez, Gilbert Padilla, Dolores Huerta, and even one of the main boycott coordinators Jerry Brown. I will use the information provided by him through original research of primary sources to argue for or against certain opinions I bring up in my paper—whether they are liberal or conservative talking points. Garcia provides some eye-opening accounts of Chávez that will be sure to provoke the readers of my final work.

In 2013, Frank Bardacke wrote a scholarly article titled The UFW and the Undocumented and it was published in the International Labor and Working Class History journal.[3] The main point of Bardacke’s journal article is to show that the UFW’s policy toward out-of-status immigrants had been mostly negative until the death of César Chávez. It is worth mentioning that Bardacke is a former member of Chávez’s union enabling him to offer illuminating insight to their operations. The UFW had a stricter anti-immigrant policy from its inception until 1975, culminating in the infamous “Campaign Against Illegals.” After this campaign, the UFW somewhat softened its stance against all undocumented workers in that it continued allying with the INS to take strikebreaking workers out of the fields, but caring less about undocumented workers already within the United States.

Bardacke’s journal article uses direct quotes from Chávez and the printed word from the organization’s many leaflets. Bardacke provides historical context to better argue for or against conservative or liberal talking points he mentions in the introductory paragraph. He states that the conservative position is that the UFW was wholly anti-immigrant and set up its own de facto border patrol in Arizona to block immigrants from Mexico. The liberal position is that the UFW only opposed undocumented workers when they broke strikes and that this policy was of yesteryear, therefore not relevant to their current active status as a defender of immigrant workers’ rights. This journal article will help my paper because it adds more nuance to the overall dispute between liberals and conservatives. Additionally, I found it interesting that Bardacke is an avowed leftist yet at times sides with the general conservative claims against Chávez and the UFW. This fact intrigued me, and I had not come across this article or author until well into my research. Further, Bardacke also released in 2013 a scathing book centered around Chávez and the UFW entitled, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. Bardacke’s book sparked a lot of research and aided this paper with its extensive bibliography.

In utilizing these two monographs and one scholarly journal article, I will conclude my research paper on whether the liberal or conservative position on Chávez holds more water. The analytical exploration of primary sources to come will retain impartiality for the sake of objectivity. All three authors I have reviewed veer left on the traditional left-right axis, and this may introduce its own bias. The primary sources explored hereafter include: a congressional statement from Chávez, an article from the UFW’s newspaper, New York Times and Los Angeles Times newspaper articles, a KQED public television interview with Chávez, and a socialist critique of his organization from The Militarist.

The most prominent source of the liberal argument is Chávez and the UFW themselves. There is a recurring theme of their firm position on preventing undocumented immigrants from working within the US solely being applied to those who broke strikes. In 1969, Chávez approached a subcommittee within Congress to advocate for legislation favoring collective bargaining rights and the securing of contracts for his unionized workers. His statement was about ten pages long and addressed some sincere concerns for farm workers.[4] Toward the end, however, he castigated the legacy of the Bracero Program as having influenced a generation of Mexicans to cross into America to earn wages and spend them in Mexico without applying for permanent American residence. In the eyes of the UFW, these workers lowered the pay of their union members and stymied overall progress. Chávez stated, “The program lives on in the annual parade of thousands of illegal [sic] and green carders across the United States-Mexico border to work in our fields.”[5] In the following paragraph, Chávez evoked a traditionally-conservative talking point when he requested Congress to adhere to “law and order” by respecting the age-old economic law of supply and demand. Chávez was strategically wrapping his liberal anti-strikebreaker stance with an appeal to conservatives concerned with justice, law, and order.

At the end of this string of arguments he concluded by stating, “What we ask is some way to keep the illegals and green carders from breaking strikes; some civil remedy against growers who employ behind our picket lines those who have entered the United States illegally, and, likewise those green carders who have not permanently moved their residence and domicile to the United States.”[6] This statement solidified the UFW’s policy toward the prevention of undocumented workers from breaking strikes and therefore lends credence to the liberal argument presented throughout this paper.

About five years later the UFW again outlined their viewpoint on undocumented immigrants in their newspaper, El Malcriado. The organization took matters into their own hands and set up a de facto border patrol complete with a long line of “army hospital tents every 300 yards along the border,” a car used for “night patrols” to prevent people from sneaking across at night, and a “light plane […] to watch for illegals crossing during the day.”[7] Additionally, this plane kept in “constant radio contact with strikers on the ground, who [tried] to intercept any aliens reported by the pilot.” The UFW patrolled a 125-mile stretch of Arizona-Mexico border with a focus point in San Luis, Arizona which is where they were holding a strike. Union officials claimed their border patrol was established to prevent the local citrus growers from using the labor of undocumented workers because it negatively impacted this strike at the time.

The article included some choice quotes from strikers on their opinion of the border patrol. One told the paper, “[W]e can’t let them break our strike, in the end we will benefit and they too will benefit. We are suffering for them, they should suffer a little for us.”[8] These workers were used to appeal to emotion and push readers of the paper to agree with the call to prevent potential strikebreakers from Mexico. This line of reasoning comports with the liberal argument in defending the UFW’s actions because their primary goal was to prevent the undermining of strikes by outsiders.

There is an additional twist from a New York Times article written by Robert Lindsey that further corroborated the information presented in the previous El Malcriado article. The article asserted that allegations were made against the UFW claiming they physically assaulted Mexican migrants who dared walk north of their established “wet line” in Yuma, Arizona.[9] Yuma County has San Luis, AZ within it which is where the UFW set up their de facto border patrol. Curiously, Lindsey stated that for seven months Mexican newspapers were publishing stories concerning UFW brutality toward Mexican migrants, but these stories were largely ignored stateside.[10]

The article included an interview with Travis Yancy, a Yuma County sheriff, who witnessed these events. Yancy claimed, “Each [army hospital] tent was manned by five or six of their people who were paid $5 to $7 a day, plus their grub. They’d catch any ‘wet’ coming through and beat the hell out of them using clubs, chains, and five-foot-long flogging whips.” The astonishing article continues stating Yancy also alleged “that the UFW had bombed the houses and burned the cars of potential strike-breaking aliens and bribed Mexican officials not to interfere with the ‘wet line.’”[11] These claims should be taken with a grain of salt, however, there are books one can read which corroborate them using personal interviews with former UFW officials or members.

Near the article’s end, the journalist reached out to Chávez for a statement on these allegations against his organization. Chávez stated, “We had a ‘wet line;’ it cost us a lot of money, and we stopped a lot of illegals. If it happened, I know nothing about it. I tried to look into it. […] I didn’t find anything that made me feel anything wrong had happened.” Whether Chávez was telling the truth or not to a reporter is open to speculation. However, this article gave credence to the actions described in the UFW’s newspaper, albeit with damaging allegations. Still, this further solidifies the conservative position that Chávez and the UFW worked to prevent all Mexican migrants as seen in their strict border patrol monitoring for even passersby.

In September 1972, Chávez went on KQED, a public television station in the San Francisco Bay Area, to inform viewers of the UFW’s difficulties in cementing contracts with larger companies. He noted how pertinent it was to have the right to strike and boycott. For context, Chávez completed a 25-day fast a few months prior to this television interview and he was still riding on the wave of publicity from that. The fasting protest garnered more support and he capitalized on that by going on television to spread the UFW’s message.

The significant portion of this videotaped interview is his frustration with an oil company and their decision to hire 220 undocumented immigrants. He stated, “We’ve closed [the oil company] down. They’ve been unable to get strikebreakers, or have gotten very few. Then, all of a sudden yesterday morning, they brought in two hundred and twenty wetbacks—these are the illegals from Mexico. Now, there’s no way to defend against that kind of strikebreaking.” Chávez then finished his thought by pleading for the city’s inhabitants to boycott the products of companies who partake in this type of strikebreaking. He was clearly indignant to companies hiring undocumented workers from Mexico as he was powerless to prevent it. Or was he? The previous sources paint a picture with César Chávez and the UFW as opposers of out-of-status immigrants taking Mexican-American jobs mainly to prevent a strike from being broken. His statement before Congress and the El Malcriado’s article shed light on this official position. The archived video does not necessarily support the liberal nor conservative position. Although Chávez visually and audibly stumbles after he says “wetbacks,” his body language should be left to viewers to interpret themselves.

However, the story takes a turn when one reads a socialist newsweekly, The Militant, which questioned Chávez and his organization’s motivations in a 1974 article published before their venture with a vigilante border patrol.[12] The author, Miguel Pendás, was a staunch leftist and general supporter of the labor movement. According to a 1974 Viewpoint article, Pendás was an organizer of the first Chicano Moratorium in Northern California in 1970. He was also born of Cuban parents and was sympathetic to the Cuban revolution.[13] Despite this, he criticized César Chávez and the UFW’s policy concerning undocumented immigrants. After presenting the UFW’s stance in their paper El Malcriado stating, “illegals must be granted their full democratic rights […] or they must go” Pendás argued these workers would not have been able to secure any rights if the UFW was covertly calling for their deportation. His full quote is powerful and its inclusion is justified by its significance. Pendás wrote, “But clearly an organization cannot fight for the rights of the undocumented while at the same time demanding their deportation. As long as the UFW leadership continues to provide la migra with names and addresses of undocumented workers, their talk of favoring full rights is so much empty rhetoric designed only to make their deportation position more palatable to the movement.”[14]

Pendás then examined a New York Times piece, published on March 14, 1974, in which Chávez claimed 20 percent of the California field workers were “illegals,” but questioned how Chávez could realistically view these workers, about 50,000 in total, as actual strikebreakers because their multiple strikes had nowhere near that amount of people involved. Pendás dug in further with another Chávez quote: “In one place I knew at least 500 of the 2,000 working were illegal. They came and arrested 19. I say they weren’t really trying to get them.”[15] Here one can see Chávez’s disappointment with lenient INS enforcement. As an aside, I found a Los Angeles Times article from 1979 in which Chávez is quoted as saying, “[Farm worker employers] have got inherent feelings against Mexicans. When this strike first started they were saying racist things like ‘Why don’t you go back to Mexico…you ungrateful Mexican.’”[16] The irony here is just five years prior, Chávez was on record with the New York Times as wanting to send Mexican migrant workers back to Mexico every chance he had.

Coming back to the Militant article, in a crucial paragraph Pendás posited that Chávez and the UFW contradicted their official policy of wanting to curb Mexican immigration solely to prevent strikebreaking. Pendás substantiated his claim with the fact that the UFW was, at the time, still circulating “a petition to Congress to ‘enforce immigration laws’ and ‘remove the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens now working in the fields.’”[17] Pendás’ claim directly refuted the purported policy positions of the UFW because if they were telling the truth, they would not be targeting hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in the fields for removal by the government. These vast numbers of persons could not have all been strikebreakers threatening the union’s progress. Pendás’ journalistic deliberation offers robust substantiation to the conservative argument. Chávez depended on the coercive action of the INS as much as possible to deport undocumented workers. By doing this, he wanted to ensure his unionized workers were hired in the agriculture sector and rewarded higher pay instead of farms opting for cheap, nonunionized labor.

The legacy of César Chávez has been officially challenged and the evidence is convincing. From his congressional statement one can see he sought legislation to curb Mexican immigration to prevent strikebreaking. The UFW’s El Malcriado boasted about establishing a vigilante border patrol along the Arizona-Mexico border. The New York Times article further corroborated some details in the border patrol article while introducing some troublesome assault allegations. The KQED public television interview displayed Chávez’s frustration with a company hiring hundreds of undocumented workers despite his active strike, but did not explicitly aid the liberal nor conservative argument. Finally, Miguel Pendás’ examination of the UFW added concrete evidence to the conservative argument with Chávez’s admission to the New York Times that he regularly called the INS to deport field workers. Despite the leftist bias of majority of my sources, it appears as though modern-day conservatives may be correct in their allegations against Chávez and the questioning of his legacy in regards to immigration of the undocumented. Much of the evidence presented leans this direction. Chávez was a man of his time, specifically a 1950s Democrat. While his stances may be questionable in hindsight, he did do a lot of essential work for those who needed the help. Chávez was a flawed man like the rest of us. Perhaps my scrutiny will give his admirers pause to reflect on the complexity of this twentieth century labor movement hero. After all, the United Farm Workers union has been fervently committed to immigration reform since the death of Chávez. Their work is not over yet.

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Bardacke, Frank. “The UFW and the Undocumented.” International Labor and Working Class History; Cambridge 83 (Spring 2013): 162–69.

Chávez, César. Statement of Cesar E. Chavez 1969, § Subcommittee On Labor Of The Senate Committee On Labor And Public Welfare (1969).

“Chávez explains the need for boycotts.” Video, September 25, 1972. Bay Area Television Archive.

Garcia, Matthew. From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Lindsey, Robert. “Criticism of Chavez Takes Root in Farm Labor Struggle.” The New York Times, February 7, 1979, sec. Archives.

Minian, Ana Raquel. Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Montemayor, Robert, and Evan Maxwell. “Chavez Takes Strike to His Arizona Birthplace.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. March 1, 1979, sec. Part I.

Pendás, Miguel. “UFW Supporters Criticize Chavez Call for Deportation of Undocumented Workers.” The Militant. October 11, 1974.

“Speakers For Radical Change.” Viewpoint, 1974.

“UFW Border Patrol.” El Malcriado, November 18, 1974.


[1] Ana Raquel Minian, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[2] Matt Garcia, The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).

[3] Frank Bardacke, “The UFW and the Undocumented,” International Labor and Working Class History, vol. 83 (2013): 162-169.

[4] César Chávez, “Statement of Cesar E. Chavez 1969,” § Subcommittee on Labor of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare (1969).

[5] Chávez, “Statement of Cesar E. Chavez 1969,” 8.

[6] Chávez, “Statement of Cesar E. Chavez 1969,” 8.

[7] “UFW Border Patrol,” El Malcriado, November 18, 1974, 11, 5.

[8] “UFW Border Patrol,” El Malcriado, November 18, 1974, 11, 5.

[9] Robert Lindsey, “Criticism of Chavez Takes Root in Farm Labor Struggle,” The New York Times, February 7, 1979, sec. Archives,

[10] Robert Lindsey, “Criticism of Chavez Takes Root in Farm Labor Struggle.”

[11] Robert Lindsey, “Criticism of Chavez Takes Root in Farm Labor Struggle.”

[12] Miguel Pendás, “UFW Supporters Criticize Chavez Call for Deportation of Undocumented Workers,” The Militant, October 11, 1974. 18.

[13] “Speakers For Radical Change,” Viewpoint, 1974. 14.

[14] Pendás, “UFW Supporters Criticize Chavez Call for Deportation of Undocumented Workers,” 18.

[15] Pendás, “UFW Supporters Criticize Chavez Call for Deportation of Undocumented Workers,” 18.

[16] Robert Montemayor and Evan Maxwell, “Chavez Takes Strike to His Arizona Birthplace,” Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif., March 1, 1979, sec. Part I.

[17] Pendás, “UFW Supporters Criticize Chavez Call for Deportation of Undocumented Workers,” 18.