Menendez, Sessions fight over legacy of immigration activist Cesar Chavez

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez blocked a GOP effort to honor Arizona-born Cesar Chevez for his work shielding American farm workers from employers’ use of low-wage illegal laborers.

The GOP’s resolution language honoring Chavez, who died in 1993, declared that “Cesar Estrada Chavez strongly believed in enforcing immigration laws, thereby reducing the deleterious effects of inexpensive labor on the wages of farm workers in the United States.”

But Menendez slammed the GOP’s language, saying March 31 that “it is an injustice to his memory to offer such an amendment, and that’s why I will have to object.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions objected to Menendez’s progressive-style resolution praising Chavez, once Menendez blocked the GOP’s amendment to his resolution.

Under Senate rules, any senator can block a resolution until there’s a formal vote by the senators.

Progressives and Latino lobbies are trying to make Chavez into a saint-like political figure for Hispanics by rewriting Chavez’s history of pro-American activism.

Chavez was a outspoken advocate for border protections, which he said were needed to shield American farm workers from employers’ use of low-wage Latino illegal immigrants. His activism ended the so-called “Bracero” guest work program, and helped triple the wages of American farm workers by the early 1970s.

“As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it is going to be very difficult to win strikes,” Chavez told an interviewer in 1972.

His pro-American history is a problem for progressives and Latino lobbies because they want to boost the inflow of Latino immigrants. So Democrats and their allies simply hide Chavez’s opposition to low-wage immigration.

President Barack Obama declared in March that “none of us can claim to know exactly what Cesar would have said about this [2014 immigration] fight, or any other.”

A new movie about Chavez downplays his opposition to immigration. The movie’s Mexican director, Diego Luna, described the movie as a way to aid immigrants. “We’re coming out with ‘Cesar Chavez’ at the right moment in the States,” he told Variety in February. “There’s a big debate in the U.S. about immigration reform [and] we need to reflect on who’s feeding this country today, why this community has been ignored.”

The goal has imposed a heavy price on American farm workers, most of whom are Hispanic.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the political alliance of industry groups, unions and progressives reduced border enforcement and allowed employers to hire millions of illegal immigrants. That inflow reduced the wages of American farm workers, down to roughly $10 per hour.

Business groups and progressives are now pushing the GOP to double the inflow of new immigrants, even if the inflow also blocks a wage increase for American farm workers.


Menendez defended the progressives’ effort to boost immigration, which delivers more left-leaning voters and supporters to Democratic candidates and Latino lobbies. “There is no bigger supporter by the way of immigration reform than the United Farm Workers, which [Chavez] helped build,” said Menendez, who was one of the four Democrats who helped draft the immigration bill.

Menendez denounced Sessions’ focus on Chavez’ opposition to immigration that undercuts Americans’ wages. “That’s not the issue of Cesar Chavez,” he said.

“The Senate has spoken on the question of immigration,” he added. “Sixty-seven senators, two-thirds of the Senate … sent an immigration reform bill to the House of Representatives.”

That Senate rewrite passed with support from all 54 Democratic senators and from 14 GOP senators, but has been blocked by GOP politicians because of widespread pubic opposition.

If it become law, the bill would ensure roughly 40 million more foreigners would be allowed to work in the United States during the next decade. That total would include at least 11 million current illegals, roughly 20 million new legal immigrants and more than 10 million guest-workers. During the same decade, 40 million Americans will turn 18 and begin looking for jobs that can help them build enough wealth to get married and buy a house.

Menendez blamed the GOP for his failure to pass his progressive-style resolution in favor of Chavez.

“This is the eighth year — the eighth year,” he said, that his Chavez resolution has been rejected.

“This is really a fig leaf. … This is not about immigration reform. This is about Cesar Chavez [who] led boycotts across the country, to bring to justice the rights of farm workers all workers across the land,” he said.

Sessions, who is pushing for a revised national policy that would raise wages by reducing immigration, pushed his opposition to increased immigration.

“I would object and would just note that I do have a different view, and on these issues with regard to the impact of [the Senate immigration bill], had it passed, it would have been adverse to farm workers who are in this country working hard, need pay raises, and need better job opportunities,” he said.

“These are important parts of Mr. Chavez’s career. It seems to me that the Senate would be pleased to accept them,” Sessions added.

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