March 31 is a federal commemorative holiday that celebrates the birth of the late Cesar Chavez, who led the farmworker movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Chavez was an iconic, transformative figure who is rightly celebrated for his labor and civil rights activism. Yet on immigration, Chavez held complex, often contradictory views, which evolved over time. Tracing his transformation may shed light on how we can support farmworkers’ rights today.
Early in the farmworker struggle, Chavez held decidedly anti-immigrant views. There was a logic and a history to this position. Historically, labor unions had been wary of immigrants, seeing in them wage competition and recognizing they were often useful strategically for employers to break strikes and undermine working-class solidarity. This dynamic was true in agricultural work as well. Native-born farmworkers’ fear about immigrant labor competition was amplified when the United States and Mexico agreed to the Bracero program during World War II, which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to America for seasonal work contracts during and after the war.
The bracero program pitted farmworkers who were citizens, often Mexican Americans, against noncitizens, mostly Mexican, even though they both faced the same exploitative conditions. These conditions sparked powerful labor activism. Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican American labor organizer working in the 1940s-1960s, believed labor conditions on farms could only improve if the bracero program was terminated. Although the program was supposed to allow growers to import workers only when domestic laborers could not be found and ostensibly required them to pay “prevailing wages,” growers manufactured shortages and set low wage levels.
With tremendous power to contract an endless supply of desperate, poorly paid laborers from south of the border, growers kept U.S.-born laborers powerless. Though Galarza sympathized with Mexican workers, he also understood the harsh realities of labor economics and his first priority was U.S. citizen workers. After years of protest, lobbying and pressure, Galarza and his labor allies succeeded in bringing the bracero program to an end in 1964.
By bringing public attention to the dire working conditions of braceros and other farmworkers, the effort had its first success with the closure of the program. Yet, at the same time the program ended, a new labor problem emerged that set the movement back.
Although Congress created in 1965 new restrictions on the legal immigration of people from Western Hemisphere countries, including Mexico, growers continued to recruit them as workers. But instead of coming through the legal bracero program, people came without legal authorization. A new class of cheap labor with limited legal rights and little power to demand better working conditions or higher wages came to dominate farm work: undocumented immigrants.