Immigration is complicated, as Cesar Chavez could tell you

Out of America: One of Hispanic America's great heroes, soon to get a Hollywood biopic, was no friend to illegals
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Today, as Congress gets to grips with the most extensive reform of America's immigration laws in a generation, it's worth remembering that no heroes are spotless – not even the late Cesar Chavez.

Chavez is perhaps the most important Hispanic leader in United States history. As founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in the 1960s, he led strikes and boycotts to protest the dreadful pay and working conditions of the mostly immigrant labour force that picked the crops in California and Florida. The protests were non-violent, yet they improved the lot of many of society's most vulnerable and exploited members. For some, Chavez ranks scarcely below Martin Luther King himself in the civil rights pantheon of the era.

For Democrats, he is both an enduring inspiration and a precious political asset. "Yes, we can" was a slogan of Barack Obama's intoxicating 2008 campaign for the presidency. Less known is that the slogan is not original, merely the English translation of the UFW's old war-cry, "Si, se puede".

And last October, three weeks before election day, Obama took time off the campaign trail to travel to the minuscule central Californian town of Keene (population 431) to dedicate the home where Chavez lived and ran his union as a Cesar Chavez National Monument. It was an unashamed bid to bolster Hispanic support, albeit an unnecessary one. Already in 2008, against John McCain, Obama carried 70 per cent of the Latino vote; four years later, with Mitt Romney his opponent, that share climbed to 73 per cent.

And now Chavez the hero of Hispanics is again in the news, as Congress tries to pass immigration reform that provides a path to legal residence and citizenship to the 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in the US. Of those, 75 per cent are from Central America and two-thirds from Mexico alone. Understandably, no legislative issue is more important to the Hispanic community.

Obama and others are pushing for 31 March, the date Chavez was born in 1927, to be a national holiday. In a few months, Chavez, a Hollywood film starring the rising Hispanic star Michael Pena, will hit cinemas. But the issue of illegal immigration will be conspicuously absent from the film and with good reason.

Not only was Chavez, the farm-worker son of Mexican-American parents from Yuma, Arizona, not an illegal immigrant. He also spent much of the early part of his career fighting illegal immigration. Back then, farm employers could import temporary workers from south of the border under the Bracero (or "manual labourer") agreement between the US and Mexico. The braceros were paid even less than ordinary farm workers, so that when the latter tried to strike, employers simply shipped in more braceros.

In 1964 the programme ended – but not illegal immigration, which continued to undermine the UFW's efforts to improve life for its members. By 1965, Chavez had made his name by throwing his union's support behind a strike by Filipino grape-pickers, and urging a national boycott of table grapes from California. The upshot, after five years, was a deal that won both better pay and union representation for the pickers. But the underlying threat remained: if undocumented workers continued to slip in from Mexico, all the hard-won gains might vanish. In 1973, the UFW even set up a "wet line" along 100 miles of the frontier with Mexico to keep out illegals – sometimes by force. Only in the 1980s did Chavez change his tune, backing the Immigration Reform Act of 1986, which gave an amnesty to three million.

But as an effort to control illegal immigration, the act failed. Border enforcement was not beefed up as promised, nor did employers check the legal status of workers, as they were meant to. The three million have become 11.5 million and, 27 years later, Congress is trying again.

The draft measure, thrashed out by a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight", includes a revamped guest-worker programme, and a new category of "merit visas" to attract people with hi-tech skills. But its cornerstone is an update of the trade-off that didn't work in 1986: a massive investment in border security to prevent illegals entering, in exchange for a path to citizenship for those already here.

The path won't be easy: applicants must pay outstanding back taxes as well as a small fine, before spending 12 years with a temporary residence permit. Only then will they be eligible for a green card and permanent legal residence, entitling them to apply for full US citizenship. Meanwhile, billions of dollars will be spent reinforcing the border, prosecutions of those caught trying to enter the country will be stepped up, while "E-Verify" – a voluntary scheme whereby employers can use a government database to check the status of employees – will be compulsory.

As Chavez's shifting views testify, immigration is fiendishly complicated, involving not just economic calculations and a state's duty to protect its territory, but the profoundest issues of human rights and dignity. But the odds are (just) that even this dysfunctional Congress will come up with a new law, broadly along the "Gang of Eight" proposals.

The problem lies not in the Democrat-led Senate but the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans – who, in turn, are largely controlled by a radical Tea Party element opposed to any amnesty. But even the most ostrich-like elements of the GOP realise that, if it is ever to win back the White House, the party must increase its appeal to Hispanics. Sometime this autumn, Barack Obama will probably have an immigration bill to sign. And Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, would probably be a happy man.