How California Went From Anti-Illegal Immigration to ‘Sanctuary State’

9 min
About 200 demonstrators protesting Proposition 187 march along Senter Road in San Jose on Oct. 25, 1994. The march began in Morgan Hill and ended at St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown San Jose. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)

Amparo Cid traces her work as an attorney, helping recent immigrants and their families in the Central Valley fight injustices and potential deportation, to her experience as a child in 1994.

That was when California voters passed Proposition 187, an initiative that denied undocumented immigrants access to publicly funded services. Back then, many California officials blamed the federal government for not doing more to keep people from crossing the border illegally.

Today, the roles are reversed.

The federal government wants the state to cooperate more in immigration enforcement. It sued California over state laws meant to increase protections for undocumented immigrants without serious criminal backgrounds.

This week, as President Trump visited California for the first time during his presidency, he lambasted state elected officials over sanctuary policies, which he tweeted “put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk.”

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To Cid, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, the perception of immigrants as a massive threat to the nation has striking parallels with California’s battle over Proposition 187. She believes just as she was impacted by the immigration debate in the state then, a younger generation is paying attention today.

"Kids are watching and hearing what's coming out of federal decision-makers," said Cid, 33. "And those kids are going to grow up to be phenomenal agents of change. They will know, because they are living in this moment of time, that you have to speak up."

Cid compares that to her own experience as a fifth-grade student in Morgan Hill, a suburb of San Jose, when the debate over Proposition 187 was a turning point in her life and galvanized Latinos across the state.

“That was the very first time in my life that I was called a wetback,” said Cid, who was born in the area. “And these were kids that I went to school with since kindergarten!”

Although Proposition 187 was approved by voters, its major provisions were blocked by a federal court from being implemented.

Tensions Surround Proposition 187

At Cid's church in Morgan Hill, St. Catherine of Alexandria, the Rev. Jon Pedigo got hate mail after preaching unity and support for immigrants to his white parishioners.

"They didn't like what they heard at the pulpit because we were talking about immigrants, we were talking about rights," said Pedigo, 57, a Bay Area native. "You know people are calling us communists or socialists or you guys are terrible people."

At the time, California was experiencing a severe economic recession with more than 720,000 jobs being lost, according to a 1998 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Those economic anxieties, coupled with a significant growth of the Latino population, contributed to racial tensions across the state.

With Proposition 187, which allowed the state to withhold services to people only suspected of being in the country illegally until their status was verified, many U.S.-born Latinos worried they would be racially profiled.

"It was a really stressful time. There was a sense that the entire Latino population of the state was being targeted," said Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. "It really kind of was an open season on Latinos in the state."

Pedigo decided parishioners against Proposition 187 would need to push back. He proposed a march to the cathedral in San Jose, 20 miles away.

Father Jon Pedigo visits the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose on February 15, 2018. Pedigo led a 20-mile march to the cathedral to protest Prop. 187 in 1994. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Morgan Hill Parishioners March

On Oct. 25, 1994, dozens of St. Catherine’s parishioners, including school-age children such as Cid, met in a run-down parking lot near downtown Morgan Hill and began their march north.

As they left town, passing apricot orchards and packing plants, Pedigo held a large wooden cross. Other marchers carried banners that read “No to discrimination” and “No to injustice,” said Jose Montemayor, now 70, a parishioner who helped organize the march.

"Prop. 187 opened up our eyes to the need of becoming more politically active," said Montemayor, a naturalized U.S. citizen who began volunteering in voter registration drives due to the measure.

Even fatigue and hurting feet did not diminish the pride Nancy Gonzalez, then 14, sensed while marching with family and friends.

"It was very empowering," said Gonzalez, now the mom of three children. "I thought 'we are out here, we are marching. We may or we may not make a difference, but people are definitely going to see us.'"

By the time marchers reached downtown San Jose at dusk, the group had swelled to about 200 as other people joined along the way, said Pedigo.

Jose Montemayor at St. Catherine’s of Alexandria, his church of more than 40 years in Morgan Hill, Calif. on Feb 26, 2018. Montemayor helped organize a march against Prop. 187 led by Father Jon Pedigo. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

'We Didn't Know We Were That Powerful'

The Morgan Hill marchers were greeted by thousands of supporters filling the streets of downtown San Jose, according to media reports.

One of them was Teresa Castellanos, then a union organizer and young mom.

"That night was such a beautiful night," said Castellanos, a fourth-generation American. "That coming together to say we support each other, and we are a community here that contributes."

Finally, Pedigo and the marchers streamed into the packed cathedral. While Pedigo took in the view of protesters inside holding candles, he had a realization.

"No one recognized that there was people power in the immigrant community and their allies," said Pedigo, his voice breaking as he remembered that moment. "We didn't know we were that powerful."

Observers credit the reaction to Proposition 187 with boosting Latino voter registration by about 1 million over the next decade, increasing the number of Latinos elected to state office, and shifting that voter population’s support to Democrats.

“It was a profound change in the state’s electorate and as a consequence, the California you see today politically is in many ways the product of the events of the 1990s,” said Segura at UCLA.

The Morgan Hill marchers and other supporters say that period of California history was very influential in their lives, impacting their career decisions and political inclinations.

"It changed my life basically," said Gonzalez, who still lives in Morgan Hill. "Even if I didn't have a voice back when I was 14, as soon as I turned 18 then I had a lot of responsibility."

Nancy Gonzalez and her father, Jose, meet at her home in Morgan Hill, Calif. on Feb. 26, 2018. Gonzalez marched against Prop. 187 when she was 14 years old. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Gonzalez, Cid and their families vote every single election for Democrats, who they see as more supportive of families of color.

Pedigo now directs advocacy for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, one of the largest nonprofit agencies in the area.

And Castellanos has worked for 23 years to promote citizenship in immigrant communities. She sees clear similarities between the support Proposition 187 gained in California and the nationwide support for Trump administration policies and rhetoric on immigration.

"I think what we're fighting about in this country right now is the definition of what is an American," she said. "The lesson that California has is that when you are inclusive, when you grow with your community, when you acknowledge a diversity, that is an asset.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.