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 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.


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