Political Effects Linger 20 Years After Prop. 187 Targeted Illegal Immigration

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No on 187 rally in Fresno in 1994. (David Prasad/Flickr)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of  Proposition 187, a ballot measure that left a profound mark on California politics.

It was a kind of citizens' revolt in 1994 over illegal immigration, and it passed overwhelmingly with 59 percent of the vote.

To understand why Prop. 187 struck such a chord 20 years ago, you have to know what was happening in California back then. There was a sense across the country that our borders were simply out of control. It was captured in a television ad, now infamous, used by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in his re-election campaign that year.

"They keep coming," intoned the ominous voice on the commercial. "Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them."

Its provocative images of people streaming in from Mexico illegally helped propel Wilson to a re-election landslide. But it came at a cost to the Republican Party in California.

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Earlier this month I visited the border crossing featured in that commercial.

"This is right in the middle of what used to be ground zero in terms of illegal immigration," says Pete Nunez.  Pointing toward the south and east, he notes, "Most of what you see today wasn't here 20 years ago because it was overrun by illegal immigrants. There was no fence, there were no lights. There were no cameras. So it really served as a focal point of what was wrong with immigration policy."

Nunez was U.S. attorney for San Diego under President Ronald Reagan and one of the chief proponents of Prop. 187.

"In the narrowest sense, we wanted to implement at the state level some measures that would make it more difficult for illegal aliens to survive in the state," Nunez says. He mentions a study at the time showing how much money illegal immigration cost California.

"It was in the billions of dollars and it covered everything from public schooling, medical costs, jail costs, welfare costs -- all kinds of costs that would be passed down to the taxpayer."

Prop. 187 called for preventing undocumented immigrants from getting any public benefits, including health care and education. It required school districts to verify the immigration status of all students -- and their parents.


The issue had such resonance with voters that Democrats up for re-election, like U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were also talking tough on border security.

On election night, Prop. 187 won with 59 percent of the vote. And Stanford political science professor Gary Segura notes it was a good night for Republicans.

"In 1994 we re-elected a Republican governor, Republicans controlled the lower house of the state Legislature, the Senate was relatively closely divided and the congressional delegation in the House of Representatives was exactly half Republican and half Democrat."

Segura says that before 1994, Latinos were trending toward the Republican Party. Prop. 187, he says, changed everything.

"After 1994 and up through 2000, approximately 1.1 million people registered to vote in the state of California" Segura notes. "One million of the 1.1 million were self-identified Hispanics or Latinos."

Their clout has helped Democrats capture every statewide office from governor on down, while giving  Democrats two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Some California Republicans insist there are no lingering effects of Prop. 187 for the GOP today. One high-ranking Republican official in California called anyone who would say that an "ostrich." He believes Prop. 187 "radicalized" Latinos and other immigrants. "Before 1994, legal Mexican immigrants were among the least likely to become citizens," he said.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz was one of the few Republicans who spoke out against Prop. 187. He says that 20 years ago most eligible immigrants didn't even bother registering to vote.

"For decades the immigrant population had been growing," Unz says, "while immigrants just hadn't been politically involved, they hadn't felt it wasn't necessary for them to take part in politics."

That, he adds, allowed them to be politically scapegoated by 187.

Like many Latinos from immigrant families at that time, Lorena Gonzalez decided to get involved. She was a grad student as the 187 campaign heated up. The daughter of a farmworker from Mexico, Gonzalez says her mother pushed her toward public service.

"She said, 'There are a number of things you can do. You can become an attorney, you could represent immigrants, you could go into politics, you could do any of these things to really change the way [California] looks,' " Gonzalez remembers.

Today Gonzalez represents the 80th Assembly District in San Diego. Standing in Chicano Park in the working-class Barrio Logan neighborhood, she marvels at how much politics have changed since Prop. 187.

"The best we could hope for, for a while there, was just to stop it and now have completely reversed it and welcomed all immigrants into our community and said we need to do something about this," Gonzalez says.

At the urging of her and nearly two dozen other Latinos in the state Legislature, California has enacted legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and get college loans.

And earlier this month, the state Senate elected its first Latino president pro tem, state Sen. Kevin de León, from Los Angeles. De León grew up in the San Diego neighborhood now represented by Lorena Gonzalez.

His path to his current post began as a young political organizer against Prop. 187. And that experience clearly influences his thinking today.

"Every kid, regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what language they speak or where their parents are from or where they were born or their immigration status, deserves a fair shot to make it here ," said de León at his splashy inauguration at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Prop. 187 never took effect in California. It was ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts. But earlier this year de León authored legislation officially wiping the law's wording off the books. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it.

But the issue of illegal immigration still sparks strong feelings.

This summer, demonstrators protested the large number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally from Central America. Angry crowds in Murrieta, just north of San Diego County, shouted"U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!" and blocked a government bus with undocumented women and children heading to a Border Patrol station.

And in Washington, Republicans in the House of Representatives have blocked comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

Stanford political science professor Gary Segura says the national GOP continues to alienate Latino voters.

"What happened here 20 years ago in many ways is a prologue for what's happening nationwide, so it's a really interesting path," Segura says.  "It's interesting to find people not learn from their mistakes."

But at least two Republican Congress members in the Central Valley have changed course. David Valadao and Jeff Denham both represent districts with large numbers of Latinos. Both have also endorsed a path to citizenship. And Amanda Renteria, a Latina Democrat challenging Valadao, this election is having a hard time energizing Latino voters to cast ballots -- in part because there's nothing like Prop. 187 driving them to vote.