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Immigrants’ Champion: Juan Gonzalez on Ted Kennedy’s Support for Cesar Chavez and Migrant Workers

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Juan Gonzalez discusses the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s longtime advocacy of union leader Cesar Chavez and migrant workers across the country. “From the Imperial Valley of California to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, from the apple orchards of Washington to the cane fields of Florida — in all those places where invisible immigrant hands still pick America’s food — [Ted Kennedy] will be sorely missed,” writes Gonzalez in the New York Daily News. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you had an interesting piece in the New York Daily News today about Senator Kennedy’s career.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, well, I had a long interview yesterday with Dolores Huerta, the icon of the immigrant and farm workers’ movement who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez more than forty years ago, in 1962. And I talked with her about the role that Ted Kennedy had played with immigrants and with farm workers. And she was very clear that he was perhaps the most important friend and defender of immigrants and farm workers in this country — in the country’s history. She talked about — most people know about Bobby Kennedy’s involvement with the farm workers early on and with Cesar Chavez, but after Bobby Kennedy died, Ted Kennedy played an instrumental role.

As Dolores mentioned to me, when Cesar Chavez became very ill in 1968, after the Bobby Kennedy assassination, and he was bedridden for more than six months with a mysterious ailment that was causing him enormous pain — no one could figure out what it was — Dolores called Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy immediately sent a Kennedy family doctor to California to diagnose him, and the doctor was able to discover that Cesar Chavez had one leg that was shorter than another, and it was doing damage to his spine. He had a pinched nerve. And she was able to develop treatment for him.

And subsequently, in 1969, Ted Kennedy marched with the farm workers to Calexico on the Mexican border in California, one of the — an eight-day, 200-mile march that was one of the turning points, the pivotal moments in the history of United Farm Workers. He then spoke at their founding convention of the Farm Workers. And throughout his career, Kennedy was the main defender of trying to get immigration reform, migrant education for children of migrants. He was the main stalwart.

And Dolores reminds me that even at the height of the Reagan era in 1986, Kennedy was able to maneuver to get the Immigration and Reform Control Act, IRCA, or the Simpson-Rodino, as it’s called. He was the one who convinced Alan Simpson, the conservative Republican from Wyoming, to sponsor the bill in the Senate, and which resulted in about two million undocumented workers being able to achieve legalization in the United States.

So, it was throughout his life that he was involved in this. And as I mentioned in my column, in all the fields of the United States, from the Imperial Valley of California to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the cane fields of Florida, the role — Kennedy will sorely be missed, in terms of him being the main champion for immigrants and for farm workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Ted Kennedy’s body continues to lay in repose of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and tomorrow he’ll be buried at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Well, we move now to our next segment. And, of course, we’ll cover the funeral on Monday.

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