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April 6, 2014

CEPEDA: Playing politics over immigration

It’s a shame that Republicans blocked a resolution calling for the Senate to honor the legacy of Chicano icon Cesar Chavez.

But though the GOP looks petty and downright stupid for not allowing a purely symbolic commemoration honoring the history-changing labor leader, the Democrats look sort of clueless themselves for not letting the Republicans add their say to the resolution.

According to news reports, Republicans said they would have allowed the resolution to pass if Democrats had accepted additional language recognizing that Chavez supported strict enforcement of immigration laws in order to help protect American workers’ wages. Democrats refused to agree to those additions.

“It is an injustice to his memory,” the Washington Times quoted Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who has introduced the resolution eight consecutive years to no avail. He claimed Republicans were trying to mix the immigration debate with a commemorative resolution.

Menendez is right: The Republicans were playing politics — just like the Democrats.

Why, exactly, is it an injustice to Chavez’s memory to note that he was against illegal immigration because it undermined the bargaining power of U.S.-born and legal immigrant workers?

It’s not like this is news.

In 2012, author and former farmworker Frank Bardacke added to the stacks of Chavez biographies -- minus the blind hero worship — with his book “Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.”

He tells the story of a complex human being with grand ideas about how to make the lives of the poor better by taking on powerful, entrenched interests. And some of those interests, especially in California agribusiness, were more than happy to turn their backs on a broken, sometimes violent and often exploitive immigration system.

“In 1948, Ventura County’s total farm receipts had been less than $40 million. In 1958, agricultural sales topped $100 million,” Bardacke writes. “Local workers were the big losers. In a period when agriculture was booming and agricultural employment climbing, there was less work for locals and at lower wages. A small group of local farmworkers held on, finding work mostly in the vegetables from the spring to the fall. Meanwhile, real wages of braceros actually declined during this remarkable decade of growth: the nominal wage in lemons, the best paid of all local agricultural jobs, was 95 cents an hour in 1947, and just 97 cents an hour in 1959.”

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