Mises Wire

Cesar Chavez Would Have Liked Trump's Border Wall

I’m not in favor of a border wall — especially one that’s taxpayer-funded — and I can assure you that dreams of “closing” the 2,000-mile southern border are just that: fanciful dreams.

At the same time, I prefer historical facts to baseless PC assertions, and the facts point to far more complexity in the debate over border control than is imagined.

Given the media’s tone in the current immigration debate, we’re supposed to believe that Latinos in America all favor more immigration and even more illegal immigration, while only troglodyte (presumably non-Hispanic) whites favor slamming the border doors shut.

Unfortunately for those seeking a simple picture here, the reality of the relationship between immigrants and the supposedly unified interest group known as “Latinos” is rather complicated.

Indeed, “complicated” is exactly the word that longtime Latino columnist Ruben Navarette used when he wrote:

Let’s not forget that the relationship between U.S.-born Latinos and Latino immigrants, and even between foreign-born Latinos who have been naturalized and Latino immigrants, is complicated to say the least. There is an ambivalence there.

As a Mexican-American, I can tell you that many Mexican-Americans think that Mexican immigrants who come to the United States illegally are taking advantage — of a porous border, of the social-services safety net, of loopholes in immigration law, and of an insatiable appetite among U.S. employers for cheap and dependable labor. And they’re not wrong about that.

In fact, if you wanted to find a Mexican-American who typifies this complex relationship, you need look no further than Cesar Chavez, who, as one columnist put it “believed ferociously in the border.”

It’s easy to understand why. Chavez, after all, was a labor-movement activist whose tools against employers consisted largely of boycotts and collective bargaining.

To bargain collectively, however, one must be able to control the supply of labor, or benefit from barriers to entry into the labor market of some sort. And, as Chavez explains in this video (in which he refers to “illegals” and “wetbacks”), “As long as we have a poor country bordering California its going to be very difficult to win strikes as strikes are won normally by other unions with the employer.”

That is, as long as the border was open, it would be too easy to bring in strikebreakers from Mexico. Thus, Chavez needed a closed border if he was going to implement effective strikes.

Rothbard explained the principle at work here:

Laborers may also ask for geographical grants of oligopoly in the form of immigration restrictions. In the free market the inexorable trend is to equalize wage rates for the same value-productive work all over the earth. This trend is dependent on two modes of adjustment: businesses flocking from high-wage to low-wage areas, and workers flowing from low-wage to high-wage areas. Immigration restrictions are an attempt to gain restrictionist wage rates for the inhabitants of an area.

Chavez knew that more laborers, all things being equal, would lead to lower wages. So, he supported restrictions on labor in the form of immigration controls.

The reasoning is still relevant because Chavez’s views — in the broad sense of providing wage competition — can still be found among some working class Latinos today, and it also illustrates the broader issue of the fact that Chavez and many other Latinos do indeed make a distinction between natives and immigrants. This is probably one reason why Trump did the best among Latinos who voted in the Republican caucus in Nevada, and why Navarrette recognizes Trump is not likely to be totally shut out by Latino voters. Many Latino voters can easily find ways to justify in their minds a position against unrestricted immigration.

This produces what political scientists call “cross-cutting cleavages.” That’s a fancy term that refers to how many interest groups often have positions that overlap with other interest groups. Say, for instance, that Mexican-Americans have some sort of cultural affinity for people currently living in Mexico. However, those same people are also often employed persons with wages and local economic interests. Thus, their interests will overlap with both Mexican nationals and with wage-earning American nationals of all ethnic groups. Moreover, Mexican-Americans who are third- or fourth-generation natives are unlikely to feel much of a cultural connection at all.

White-nationalist types and cultural Marxists will tell you that membership in an ethnic group trumps all other considerations while regular Marxists (among others) will tell you that economic interests trump everything else. The reality is likely somewhere in between, and where individual voters come down is likely to be influenced by a myriad of factors.

So what about Chavez? Does his position matter anymore? They do because the Chavez position is the traditional union-labor position that opposes easy access to cheap-migrant labor for owners of meat processing plants and other facilities where working-class locals might find themselves competing with new immigrants.

But, it has become quite clear in the last twenty years that the union vote is falling way down the list of influential interest groups within the Democratic Party’s coalition. From the perspective of the movement elites, union workers are good for easy votes, but little else. If we look into it more closely, we find that the economic position of the left has shifted in this regard and has moved away from indirect subsidies of workers through union restrictions, and has moved instead to favor direct subsidization of workers through direct welfare transfer payments. (We must now use the word “worker” in a looser, sense, though.)

In Chavez’s view, he was helping workers through union tactics that redistributed wealth from non-union laborers who might compete for the same jobs, and from consumers who paid higher prices for products and services produced by more costly union workers. The side-effect of this, however, was that it was necessary to control the flow of new labor from neighboring Mexico (or wherever).

This strategy, however, is now viewed as old-fashioned, apparently, and the proper view, we’re told, is to simply favor subsidization of workers not just through union-induced wage increases, but through direct transfer of wealth to workers in the form of government amenities, services, and even direct cash payments such as food stamps.

This allows for a way to get around the immigrant issue Chavez confronted. Were Chavez here today, he might say “stop with this immigrant stuff. You’re destroying my leverage with the employers.” In response, the modern left would simply say “no worries, we’ll make it up to you simply by getting more free stuff for everybody, both native-born worker, and immigrant.”

However, regardless of their ethnic background, many people oppose this sort of redistribution, and see opposition to immigration as a means to limiting it, or at least getting more of it for themselves. The most laissez-faire response of course, is to limit access to welfare in the first place, which some Californians attempted to do with Proposition 187 in 1994. Indeed, in the wake of the vote on the measure, political scientist Lina Newton wrote:

What is surprising, however, is the attraction of [Prop 187] for a significant segment of California’s Latino voters. Their support might have made sense had the initiative called for tightening federal control over the border, or increasing employer sanctions. After all, in Latino Voices, a compilation of Latino National Political Survey data revealing panethnic perspectives on a variety of political issues, 75.2% of Mexican Americans interviewed agreed that there were “too many immigrants.” In fact, the percentage of Mexican Americans agreeing that there were too many immigrants was higher than that of Anglos (73.8%). Such findings in turn suggest support among Mexican Americans for federal immigration restriction policies.

These views, however, were dependent on one’s citizenship status, English proficiency, and economic status. Not surprisingly, high-income Latinos, like other ethnic groups, were likely to view immigrants as no threat to their own economic self-interest. Lower-income Latinos, however, were more hostile toward new immigrants.

But, thanks to the federal courts, local, democratic efforts to control access to welfare have been ruled illegal, so one might see how many might turn to physical border controls instead.

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