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Viva la Immigration Debate

Cesar Chávez was no champion of undocumented workers, but his spirit is still alive in today's fight for compassionate immigration reform.
 
 
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(Editor's Note: This story was originally posted in The Mix.)

Yesterday, as eight states recognized Cesar Chavez Day as an official holiday, some groups recalled Chavez's memory in their own fight for legislation that would provide 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path toward citizenship.

The conflation of Chavez's work and the fight for compassionate immigration reform is both right and wrong.

In spirit, it makes sense. Chavez, after all, worked on behalf of the underdog and always clung to a spirit of nonviolence (just as pro-immigrant demonstrators have done over the last week). A farm worker who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, he has become a legendy figure of social justice and civil rights for Chicanos. He followed Gandhi's example and fasted in 1968 to draw attention to the poor treatment of farm workers. It was this sense of justice and equality that makes Chavez a person to remember during the debates on immigration.

However, Chavez was no friend to undocumented immigrants during his time. He was born a U.S. citizen in Arizona and was loyal to American farm workers. In fighting for the rights of agricultural workers, in 1969 his union protested farms that hired illegal immigrants as scabs during a union strike. They even reported some suspected illegal immigrants to INS.

I point out these two images of Chavez in order to make a point about the immigration battle that will continue for weeks to come: Just as Chavez was not a simple man, immigration reform it is not a simple issue. It is not black and white. There is no perfect answer.

Those who support legalization of undocumented immigrants are not against unions or worker's rights. Rather, we see that the ability for families, no matter where they are from, to stay together and make enough money simply to eat is a human right. The anti-immigrant legislation that the House has already passed would rip families apart -- parents who are illegally here would inevitably leave their children and grandchildren who were born U.S. citizens -- and proposes to send millions of immigrants back home to starve. I don't believe this is the kind of "justice" that Cesr Chavez would condone.

Rather than pitting poor American citizens against poor illegal immigrants, I propose that we take Chavez's vision of social justice and apply it to all. Let's fight for legalization and workers' rights. We can demand both, and I believe there is enough American wealth to support all our nation's laborers and service workers, citizen and noncitizen, alike. We need to concentrate on forcing those who own the wealth to share it with their employees, rather than blaming our nation's newest immigrants for our crappy wages. So, rather than fighting one another for the pennies that corporations throw at their workers, let's make the Wal-Marts of the world pay up.

After all, the problem is not a lack of wealth, it is the disparity of the wealth. Why else would so many Latin American immigrants come here?

Maria Luisa Tucker is an AlterNet staff writer.