My View

When Republicans Try to Co-Opt Cesar Chavez

Sen. Jeff Sessions tries to recast the late labor leader as a supporter of tough immigration policies.

Silvia Giagnoni is Associate Professor in Communication at Auburn University in Montgomery, and an active member of Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, an immigrant advocacy organization. Follow her at on Twitter at @revolutionrock.
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Silvia Giagnon
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Silvia Giagnon
April 18, 2014, 6:57 a.m.

Silvia Gia­gnoni is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of commmu­nic­a­tions at Au­burn Uni­versity and an act­ive mem­ber of the Alabama Co­ali­tion for Im­mig­rant Justice, an im­mig­rant-ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion. Gia­gnoni watched with con­cern the re­cent Sen­ate de­bate in which Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala., sought to in­sert lan­guage in­to a res­ol­u­tion hon­or­ing Cesar Chavez that would have de­scribed the farm labor lead­er as an ad­voc­ate of the same type of strict im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment that Ses­sions fa­vors.

Gia­gnoni shared her views on the de­bate, Chavez’s polit­ic­al philo­sophy, and the polit­ics of im­mig­ra­tion in Alabama with The Next Amer­ica.

At a time when Cesar Chavez’s life is un­der­go­ing a can­on­iz­a­tion in films (Cesar Chavez and Cesar’s Last Fast), every­one un­der­stands it would be a risky polit­ic­al move to overtly at­tack the United Farm Work­er uni­on cofounder. So last month, Jeff Ses­sions, a Re­pub­lic­an from Alabama, op­ted for a dif­fer­ent ap­proach: Re­write his­tory.

As the Sen­ate con­sidered a res­ol­u­tion hon­or­ing Chavez’s con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try and de­clar­ing March 31 Cesar Chavez Day, Ses­sions claimed that the labor lead­er and civil-rights act­iv­ist favored harsh bor­der en­force­ment. The sen­at­or re­ques­ted that lan­guage say­ing just that be ad­ded in the res­ol­u­tion, thus im­me­di­ately politi­ciz­ing and com­plic­at­ing what is nor­mally a rather simple and ce­re­mo­ni­al form of na­tion­al re­cog­ni­tion.

In fair­ness, Ses­sions’s take on Chavez and his leg­acy may have been drawn from the fact that Chavez saw il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion as a threat to or­gan­ized labor. He op­posed policies and con­di­tions that led to in­fluxes of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Chavez knew these work­ers could serve as strikebreak­ers. Then and now, strikes re­main a power­ful tool for work­ers try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate bet­ter labor con­di­tions.

Ses­sions shrewdly took Chavez’s stance out of con­text. He tried to re­cast Chavez — a Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an and one-time mi­grant farm­work­er sym­path­et­ic to the ex­per­i­ence of poverty and the re­lo­ca­tion de­cisions it can lead to — as a sup­port­er of the present-day agenda of im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ob­struc­tion­ists.

Of course, any can­on­iz­ing pro­cess in­ev­it­ably brings some forms of co-opt­a­tion — some smooth­ing out of nu­ance, some dis­ap­pear­ance of polit­ic­al de­tails. However, Chavez es­poused a polit­ic­al philo­sophy rather dif­fer­ent than that of Ses­sions and his com­pat­ri­ots.

It’s worth not­ing that dur­ing Chavez’s life­time, most farm labor con­sisted of blacks work­ing in the South­east and Mex­ic­ans and Filipi­nos har­vest­ing crops in the South­w­est. Many of these work­ers were only a gen­er­a­tion away from the im­mig­rant or share­crop­ping ex­per­i­ence. So, Chavez fought for the ter­min­a­tion of the bracero pro­gram, not be­cause it drew for­eign work­ers, but be­cause of its re­cord of sys­tem­at­ic ab­uses and hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions. The UFW uni­on cofounder op­posed tem­por­ary farm work be­cause it al­lowed for an un­der­paid, dis­pos­able labor force.

Today, farm-labor or­gan­izers and so­cial-justice ad­voc­ates (most sig­ni­fic­antly, the Co­ali­tion of Im­mokalee Work­ers) revere the way Chavez turned what most would see as dis­ad­vant­ages — a labor force al­ways on the move, and ex­clu­sion from the Na­tion­al Labor Re­la­tions Act, the fed­er­al law giv­ing many work­ers the right to uni­on­ize — in­to an ef­fect­ive strategy. Chavez used these facts to gal­van­ize a sec­ond­ary boy­cott against gro­cery chains selling grapes and lettuce pro­duced and har­ves­ted un­der what he saw as con­di­tions that ex­ploited work­ers. And, he led farm­work­ers on his­tor­ic boy­cotts and hun­ger strikes.

Over the course of his life, Chavez con­trib­uted to ma­jor achieve­ment, in­clud­ing bet­ter pay and safer liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions, for farm work­ers in this coun­try. His labor act­iv­ism also man­aged to ac­tiv­ate col­lect­ive-bar­gain­ing rights for ag­ri­cul­tur­al work­ers in Cali­for­nia.

In­stead of openly re­ject­ing the Sen­ate res­ol­u­tion re­cog­niz­ing Chavez, or simply ac­know­ledging that Ses­sions and people who share his polit­ic­al views nev­er liked what Chavez did or stood for one bit, Ses­sions leaned on a pass­ive-ag­gress­ive move. Cit­ing what I con­sider spuri­ous re­search, Ses­sions tried to re­cast the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed farm­work­er lead­er as an anti-im­mig­rant cru­sader who would have backed the GOP’s view.

Some of the in­form­a­tion Ses­sions used to back his claims em­an­ates from the Cen­ter for Im­mig­ra­tion Stud­ies re­cent re­port “Catch and Re­lease.” But, the re­port does not con­tain what the or­gan­iz­a­tion claims it does: fact-based find­ings. For in­stance, CIS, a right-lean­ing think tank, con­tends that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is fail­ing to de­port thou­sands of con­victed crim­in­als and not do­ing enough to se­cure the na­tion. This is twis­ted and far from the truth. Dur­ing his ten­ure, Obama has de­por­ted more un­au­thor­ized for­eign­ers than Pres­id­ents George W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton com­bined. Both The Eco­nom­ist and The Na­tion­al Coun­cil of La Raza have called Pres­id­ent Obama the “de­port­er-in-chief.”

I think that the prob­lem is that Ses­sions and or­gan­iz­a­tions such as CIS view every un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant as a dan­ger­ous crim­in­al. However, a reput­able ana­lys­is of the gov­ern­ment’s own de­port­a­tion data re­veals that the large ma­jor­ity of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants have not com­mit­ted felon­ies such as hom­icide, rape, rob­bery, ag­grav­ated as­sault, and burg­lary.

Facts should trump rhet­or­ic. Un­for­tu­nately, Ses­sions’s tac­tic has be­come rather typ­ic­al among neo-nat­iv­ist con­ser­vat­ives: Take a civil-rights icon, say Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, twist his thoughts and the spir­it of his philo­sophy, de­prive their words of their ori­gin­al mean­ing, and use the same lan­guage to pump a tar­get audi­ence or con­fuse the gen­er­al pub­lic. If we had full ac­cess to the 2002 memo writ­ten by Re­pub­lic­an mas­ter strategist Frank Luntz, we’d prob­ably fully com­pre­hend the way this tech­nique helps to main­stream hate lan­guage and twist civil-rights his­tory.

But do we really need it? In Alabama, we need to look no fur­ther than the ac­tions of our elec­ted of­fi­cials.

The Ham­mon-Beason Alabama Tax­pay­er and Cit­izen Pro­tec­tion Act (also known as House Bill 56) that went in­to ef­fect in Septem­ber 2011 rep­res­en­ted the ul­ti­mate ef­fort to en­cour­age “self-de­port­a­tion,” a solu­tion to the coun­try’s im­mig­ra­tion is­sues backed by many con­ser­vat­ives such as Ses­sions.

HB 56 was pro­moted by its spon­sors as a bill to pro­tect the labor rights and eco­nom­ic needs of Amer­ic­an work­ers. What it ac­tu­ally did was spread au­then­t­ic ter­ror among mixed-status, low-in­come im­mig­rant com­munit­ies in the state. It made leg­al hor­ri­fy­ing prac­tices such as turn­ing off power and wa­ter ser­vice at the homes of sus­pec­ted un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and, per­haps most in­hu­manely, de­clar­ing it a felony to help an un­doc­u­mented per­son in need.

Sev­er­al faith lead­ers and pro-im­mig­rant and ad­vocacy groups de­man­ded the re­peal of HB 56, but the Re­pub­lic­an-run Le­gis­lature and Gov. Robert Bent­ley ul­ti­mately stayed the course. A co­ali­tion fought HB 56 and its re­write, HB 658, in the courts. These law­suits, which blocked key pro­vi­sions of the bill, were even­tu­ally settled in Oc­to­ber 2013.

In our me­di­ated post-fact so­ci­ety, though, false con­clu­sions like Ses­sions’s don’t just ex­ist — they are widely cir­cu­lated. And, as journ­al­ist Far­had Man­joo showed in his 2008 book, that cir­cu­la­tion can lead in­ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion to be re­garded as “true enough.”

Words mat­ter. Truth be told, the cur­rent crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants is yet an­oth­er at­tack on low-in­come work­ers, an es­sen­tial and grow­ing part of Amer­ica’s labor force.

The face of Alabama is chan­ging. The state is be­com­ing more and more mul­ti­lin­gual and in­ter­na­tion­al in its pop­u­la­tion, if not quite yet in its polit­ic­al mores. Eco­nom­ic activ­ity has led this change. Today, Hy­undai, Honda, and Mer­cedes, as well as the state’s many poultry pro­cessing plants, ho­tels, and res­taur­ants, rely heav­ily on im­mig­rant work­ers. And a bill that in­ten­ded to scare people away has in­stead un­leashed a sig­ni­fic­ant im­mig­rant-rights move­ment in the state.

I am proud to be part of this move­ment pre­cisely be­cause it re­fuses to let the false and harm­ful rhet­or­ic of Sen. Ses­sions be Alabama’s loudest.

Silvia Gia­gnoni is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of com­mu­nic­a­tions at Au­burn Uni­versity and an act­ive mem­ber of the Alabama Co­ali­tion for Im­mig­rant Justice, an im­mig­rant-ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion. Fol­low her on Twit­ter at @re­volu­tion­rock.


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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