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Keeping an eye out for harvest crews one day in 1965, my partner and I drove in our 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 us to stop.

A stocky, pleasant-faced Mexican-American man 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 farmworkers annually to the western states to harvest crops. A coalition of church, labor and community leaders insisted, correctly, that the braceros competed with American farmworkers, marginalizing their opportunities and wages. The braceros were gone, but California growers continued to pay American farmworkers 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 farmworkers and families.

As much as we 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.

Chavez had begun organizing by signing up farmworkers for burial insurance, a benefit of great importance to them. Now he sought multi-year contracts for his members that would not only permit bargaining with the growers for wages, but for improved working conditions including sanitary facilities in the field, a fair system for rehire, and health care. Hire-back clauses reduced the uncertainty in migrant families’ lives. With grower funding, the union established health clinics for members and their families. Through the NFWA’s lobbying with the California Legislature, the backbreaking short-handled hoe was outlawed.

The golden era for California farmworkers lasted just less than two decades. Some observers blame internal difficulties within the NFWA that caused Chavez to stop organizing. By 1993, he didn’t have a single contract with grape growers. But according to UC Davis farm labor economist Philip L. Martin, “Continuing immigration was the main reason that, in the 1990s, contractors and other agricultural service firms could undermine unions by organizing and deploying workers on farms.”

After the loss of bracero labor in 1964, growers had relegated themselves to working with Chavez, but by the 1980s, with plenty of illegal workers available, they no longer had an incentive. Contracts were lost to the rival “company” unions established by the Teamsters. Wages and working conditions for farmworkers regressed. Benefits were lost. Labor-saving agricultural innovation ceased.

By 1978, annual apprehensions of illegal Mexican border crossers exceeded 1 million, remaining at that level until 2008. In 1987, 22 years after the end of the Bracero Program, a new law made knowingly employing illegal immigrants a crime. It proved ineffective, easily subverted by the use of phony Social Security and immigration documents. A pilot program included in the legislation to electronically verify employment documents has remained just that for 27 years.

Today, an estimated 2.1 million immigrant, citizen and undocumented farmworkers work an average of 100 days or less a year, earning less than $10,000, and living in poverty little different than that John Steinbeck described in Grapes of Wrath.

Cesar Chavez fought to bring farmworkers into the mainstream of American economic life, and the millions of consumers who supported his boycotts aided his quest. But the great opportunity afforded by the end of the Bracero Program was lost, not by Chavez, but because powerful economic interests working in Congress blocked reforms that would have ended agriculture’s access to exploitable illegal workers.

* Michael Harpold is author of “Jumping the Line” and had a 35-year career in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as a Border Patrol inspector.

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