Published On: Mon, Mar 31st, 2014

Ahead of ‘Cesar Chavez’ film, former border patrol agent discusses meeting the labor organizer

With Release of New ‘Cesar Chavez’ Film, Former Border Patrol Agent Recalls His First Meeting with Famed Labor Organizer

Keeping an eye out for harvest crews on a late-summer morning in 1965, my partner, Bill Gibson, and I drove in our green and white U.S. Border Patrol van along a highway lined with vineyards east of Delano, Calif. A small, black car pulled up close behind us and the driver waved [to] us to stop.

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974. photo Work Permit, retouced by Joel Levine via wikimedia commons

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974.
photo Work Permit, retouced by Joel Levine via wikimedia commons

A stocky, pleasant-faced Mexican-American man with straight black hair that fell down over his forehead got out and introduced himself as César Chavez, president of the National Farm Workers Association. Coming right to the point, Chavez said his members were complaining that the growers were hiring illegal aliens.New to the area and enthusiastic about our duties, the Border Patrol had opened an office in nearby Bakersfield just four months earlier. We assured Chavez that we were concerned about the problem and would help.

He explained that the growers would break his striking union if we did not prevent them from hiring illegals; he would provide us carefully screened information to act on.

In 1965, the Border Patrol’s only recourse was to arrest individual illegal aliens. It would be more than two decades before Congress would enact a law barring employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

The year before, Congress ended the Bracero Program, a law that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers annually to the western states to harvest crops.

A coalition of church, labor and community leaders insisted, correctly, that the braceros competed with American farm workers, marginalizing their opportunities and wages. The braceros were gone, but California growers continued to pay American farm workers the wages they had been required by law to pay the braceros, $1.10 an hour, setting the stage for a strike.

That summer, the former braceros began to return, illegally crossing the border. Chavez saw illegal immigrants as not only a threat to his union, but as having different interests than the U.S. workers he sought to organize. The illegals slipped across the border, worked for a short time, then returned to Mexico. They were interested only in wages, he said, and not the benefits important to domestic farm workers and families.

As much as Bill and I wanted to help Chavez, the task proved impossible. Mexican border apprehensions rose from 55,000 in 1965 to more than 200,000 in 1969, and this was just the beginning. Border Patrol staffing did not increase; our vans were simply replaced by buses.

Nonetheless, through strikes and boycotts, Chavez won contracts. By the 1970 season, grape harvesters earned $1.75 an hour plus 25 cents a box. The federal minimum wage was $1.20 an hour.

Check back for part two

GUEST AUTHOR: Michael G. Harpold, author of Jumping the Line (www.jumpingtheline.com), began his 35-year career in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as a Border Patrol Inspector. Early in his career, he met César Chávez and Harpold’s involvement with farm workers during the grape strike led to a lifelong interest in their plight. He frequently testified before congressional committees on proposed immigration legislation and the INS budget. Harpold holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University at Fresno and attended Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco .

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  1. Border patrol agent discusses meeting Cesar Chavez - The Global Dispatch says:

    […] to part one)Chavez had begun organizing by signing up farm workers for burial insurance, a benefit of great […]

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