A Progressive Political Revolution of Historic Importance
Editor’s note: Acclaimed journalist Narda Zacchino’s new book, “California Comeback: How A ‘Failed State’ Became a Model for the Nation,” takes an in-depth look at the remarkable progressive revolution that has occurred in the Golden State. In the following excerpt from Chapter 6, titled “Diversity Trumps,” Zacchino details how California rejected the “race to the bottom” right-wing philosophy that catapulted conservative politics in recent years.
California Comeback: How A ‘Failed State’ Became a Model for the Nation
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The setting was a presidential primary debate. Two candidates were asked a simple question: Should parents of undocumented schoolchildren in Texas have to pay for their public education, or should the students be allowed to continue their education for free?
Candidate number 1: “I would like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that that problem wouldn’t come up. But today, if those people are here, I would reluctantly say I think they would get whatever it is that the society is giving to their neighbors. But the problem has to be solved . . . Because, as we have kind of made illegal some kinds of labor that I’d like to see legal, we’re doing two things: We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family loving people that are in violation of the law and secondly we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. . . . If they’re living here I don’t want to see . . . six and eight year old kids being made . . . totally uneducated and made to feel that they’re living . . . outside the law. . . . Let’s address the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people. Part of my family is . . . Mexican.”
Candidate number 2: “The time has come that the United States and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had. And I think we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size and our power. They have a problem of 40-50 percent unemployment. Now this cannot continue without the possibility of . . . trouble below the border, and we could have a hostile and strange neighbor on our border. Rather than talk about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working and earning here they pay taxes here and when they want to go back they can go back and they can cross, and open the border both ways, by understanding their problems. This [working in the United States] is the only safety valve they have from that unemployment that probably keeps the lid from blowing off down there. I think we could have a fine relationship.”
One might assume these are Democrats. But here you have the April 24, 1980, debate between George H. W. Bush (candidate number 1) and his primary opponent, Ronald Reagan—the man who is something of a deity to the swarm of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls who showed up at his presidential library in Simi Valley for their own debate in September 2015. None displayed the tolerance Reagan or Bush expressed that night in 1980 for undocumented immigrants. An exception, of course, was Jeb Bush, who is married to the “Mexican” Bush cited as “part of my family.”
Contrast Reagan’s call for an open border with Donald Trump’s tarring of border-immigrants as rapists and murderers, desire to deport the estimated eleven million unauthorized residents, and plan to deny the birthright of U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants (which is unconstitutional). His attacks on Muslims were equally harsh. Others in the Republican rabble piled on when they saw Trump’s popularity with voters growing.
What a fantastic setup for the Democratic Party. As you will see clearly demonstrated in this chapter with what happened in California in the mid-1990s, this does not bode well for the future of the Republican Party. The anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by Republican governor Pete Wilson when he was seeking reelection in 1994 drove a stake through the heart of the Republican Party in California and beyond, and the damage reverberates today.
Even Republicans in California today do not agree with Trump’s immigrant policies. A strong majority of 75 percent of Californians—including 53 percent of Republicans—believe undocumented immigrants benefit their state and should be allowed to live and work here under certain conditions, according to a statewide survey released October 1, 2015, by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The PPIC survey showed that in addition to the 53 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of people who consider themselves independent favor allowing undocumented immigrants to seek legal status. The breakdown along racial and ethnic lines was also strong, with Asians (76 percent), blacks (68 percent), Latinos (92 percent), and whites (63 percent) all heavily supportive of their undocumented family members, neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Californians are not alone in this: Nationally, 60 percent approve of a path to legal status, according to a July 2015 ABC–Washington Post poll.
Although California now enjoys a reputation for its inclusionary policies
and way of life, its history is tainted by stories of callous and sometimes brutal discrimination against its ethnic minority populations. Any boasting about multicultural California, which is discussed in this chapter, has to be leavened with remembrances of this grim history.
In the mid-1860s, more than one thousand Chinese railroad workers, constructing the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Nevada, died in treacherous conditions. Survivors were left to live in abject poverty, under discriminatory laws, becoming victims of racial violence.
One of the most shameful periods for California—as well as the nation—involved anti-Japanese hysteria following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which led to the internment of 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese heritage. Among them were 93,000 Californians, the vast majority citizens of the United States. They lost their homes, farms, stores, and possessions, not to mention their faith in humanity, when they were sent off to prison camps where temperatures could range from more than 100 degrees to freezing, depending on the season.
Antonin Scalia, the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, told students at the University of Hawaii’s law school in February 2014 that the nation’s highest court was wrong to uphold the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and spoke words in Latin that translate: “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”
On other occasions, racial and ethnic tensions, primarily in Los Angeles, exploded. The 1943 anti-Latino zoot suit riots during World War II, for example, involved attacks on Los Angeles Latinos by white servicemen stationed in Southern California. Other examples include the 1964 racial riots in Watts and rioting that followed the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.
California, of course, was not the only state with racial tensions or a racist past, but it has proved itself a model for how to assimilate new cultures. This came after the 1990s saw the last gasps of Anglo supremacy through a series of three statewide ballot initiatives designed to retain it. Those laws would fail in that mission and, particularly with the anti-immigration Proposition 187, would help bring about the demise of the Republican Party in California.
The inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump and his followers in the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign and resulting ethnic tension were reminiscent of California under the Republican governor Pete Wilson after he thoroughly embraced Proposition 187 in 1994. In that case, as with Trump, such rhetoric was seen as a path to being elected. But as Wilson learned, the anti-immigrant tactic would have a lasting and disastrous impact on his political party in California and foreshadow a similar fate for Republicans nationally.
In the summer and fall of 1994, debate swirled around the harsh, sweeping ballot measure that would end the rights to basic public health and education services for millions of undocumented Californians. The state was a tempest of rage and hurt as the measure sailed toward passage, lashed onward by Governor Wilson, who was fighting for his political life in his reelection campaign.
Some of the biggest street protests in the state’s history ensued, with participants, including many students, defiantly brandishing Mexican flags and directly challenging the narrative that foreign-born children were an economic or cultural drain. After decades of political moderation and bipartisanship began collapsing in the tumultuous 1960s, California seemed to have reached a nadir of fractious division.
While white nativists and minority radicals rallied their troops in ever more passionate and earnest adversarial displays, two Mexican American satirists took a more nuanced approach, though not everyone got the joke. Long before Stephen Colbert’s humorous reactionary Comedy Central persona came into being, Southern Californians Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul formed a pseudo front organization, Hispanics Against Liberal Takeover—Halto—led by Alcaraz posing as phony conservative media personality Daniel D. Portado (get it—“deport-ado”?), who would argue for the “self-deportation” of those in the state illegally. It took a long while for some to realize this was satire, and some never did. In 1996, on National Public Radio’s This American Life, “D. Portado” would play his role for a seemingly unknowing Ira Glass: “Well, I am here to help everyone get out. I hope to look forward to the day where I will stand at the border and say, ‘Will the last Mexican out of California please turn out the lights?’ That will be me.”
Back in 1994, out of the blue it seemed, supporters of the so-called “Save Our State” initiative had been handed a handsome, eloquent Latino supporter of their radical anti-immigrant position. Alcaraz/Portado appeared on Spanish-language media powerhouse Telemundo to make the case for “self-deportation centers,” with Zul playing his wary bodyguard. “Neither the participants nor the producers were aware of our true identity,” Zul later told the Chicago Reader. “It was the longest half-hour of my life.”
It did not take long for the most ardent supporter of Prop 187, Governor Wilson, to join the Halto chorus. As he opined in a postelection interview with New York Times conservative columnist William Safire, who was opposed to Prop 187: “If it’s clear to you that you cannot be employed, and that you and your family are ineligible for services, you will self-deport.”
The “self-deportation” idea would be roundly mocked eighteen years later when proffered by Mitt Romney in a presidential debate. Daniel D. Portado returned to the issue to leverage some serious satire out of Romney’s gaffe. The fallout from Romney’s self-deportation remark was still reverberating in 2013, when the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus referred to it as “horrific.”
But in California, in 1994, the anti-immigrant tidal wave Wilson was riding was real. The governor, who early in the race had been badly trailing Jerry Brown’s sister, former state treasurer Kathleen Brown, had thrown in all his chips on the hot-button immigration issue, just as Donald Trump would two decades later. Once a moderate San Diego mayor and U.S. senator, Wilson stoked a surge of xenophobia that was markedly uncharacteristic of his political past, joining the cause of a portion of the electorate that was much older and whiter than the state’s overall fast-changing demographic.
The concept of making life so difficult for immigrants they’ll leave became a sentiment that has gained momentum in recent years, led in part by Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach of Kansas, who helped draft the Arizona law that required state and local law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they stopped and had “reasonable suspicion” to believe were in the country illegally.
That law, key elements of which the U.S. Supreme Court jettisoned, was one of a slew of harsh and hotly controversial laws in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and other states that restrict access to benefits and jobs and step up law enforcement harassment of immigrant communities in order to deter new arrivals or long stays by foreign visitors. Some new laws have been struck down over the same flaw in Proposition 187: impingement on the federal power to make and enforce immigration law.
Proposition 187 was certainly designed to cause as much misery as possible for undocumented immigrants and their families. The initiative would have made them ineligible for public social services, including child welfare payments or foster care; public health-care services “unless emergency under federal law”; and public education at all levels. It would have required state and local government agencies to report suspected undocumented immigrants to the California attorney general and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), today’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In addition, the manufacture, distribution, sale, or use of phony citizenship or residence documents would be a felony. The INS estimated there were roughly 1.6 million undocumented immigrants in California, and the number was rising by 125,000 each year, according to the initiative’s ballot summary.
The measure targeted a fast-growing number of undocumented workers who, like today, were filling jobs most Californians generally refused to do—the dirtiest, most poorly paid gigs in agriculture, manufacturing, garment sweatshops, and restaurant kitchens, in addition to staffing the homes and gardens of the wealthy. Proposition 187 asked its recession-scarred voters to use a denial of basic government services—public health care and education—as a chokehold.To opponents of 187, it seemed peculiarly heartless to target the sick and the young in an attempt to drive families out of the state. It also was obviously counterproductive to the general populace, which would face public health issues from untreated diseases and illnesses and disruption while young people, denied entrance to schools, would potentially lack supervision while their parents were at work.
The shrill language in favor of the initiative was clear in its sweeping populism: “California can strike a blow for the taxpayer that will be heard across America . . . in the same way Proposition 13 was heard across the land,” read the pro-187 ballot text signed by state assemblyman Dick Mountjoy, one of its authors, along with campaign leaders Ronald Prince and Barbara Kiley of staunchly conservative Orange County. “Proposition 187 will go down in history as the voice of the people against an arrogant bureaucracy. WE CAN STOP ILLEGAL ALIENS.”
William Safire, echoing the sentiments of many conservatives, averred in a postelection New York Times column that penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge was “his hero.” He noted that Scrooge’s “neatly theoretical ‘economic disin- centive’ won’t disincent—because being miserable here doesn’t compare with the misery they ran away from.” Lest one mistake him for a softy, he added his own scary scenario: “Do we really want to drive most illegal families deeper underground, many to lives of crime? Would we rather have 300,000 children on the streets, learning costly delinquency—or safely in school, becoming potential citizens and taxpayers?” But also, he noted, “in terms of practicality and of the American spirit, a government policy of making any child’s life miserable is still an abomination.”
As Safire and others pointed out, much of the initiative was doomed from its drafting to be blocked in the courts, based on prior Supreme Court decisions on the rights of all children to an education regardless of status. Even the state attorney general’s official summary of the initiative noted that “the exclusion of suspected illegal immigrant children from public schools would be in direct conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler v. Doe that guarantees access to public education for all children in the United States. Consequently, this provision of the initiative would not be effective.”
Given that this is exactly how it played out, the yearlong political storm around Proposition 187 could be viewed as nothing more than an expensive tantrum thrown by a segment of the electorate not worried about the legal concept of stare decisis—precedent. Still, the measure passed.
As predicted, three days later, on November 11, 1994, a Los Angeles federal judge, Matthew Byrne Jr., issued a temporary injunction forbidding the state from enforcing key parts of the initiative. In 1997, his colleague Judge Mariana Pfaelzer found most of the law unconstitutional, as it infringed on the federal government’s authority over immigration. Governor Wilson appealed, but his successor, Democrat Gray Davis, withdrew the appeal in 1999, and no trial proceeded.
Back in 1994, one only had to look to Texas for guidance on this issue. Only twelve years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Texas law that denied undocumented schoolchildren a public education. Texans might have voted for a Proposition 187–type measure given the opportunity, but there is no initiative process there. And lawmakers, taking their cue from business leaders, were not inclined to infuriate Mexico, Texas’s number one trading partner, by advocating such a law.
In fact, one month after Proposition 187’s passage and his own election in Texas, governor-elect George W. Bush went to Mexico to attend the inauguration of incoming president Ernesto Zedillo. In a private meeting with him, later repeated to the media, Bush made clear his opposition to Proposition 187. He was distancing himself from Wilson, with whom Mexican officials, including outgoing president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had remained furious over his support for the measure. Zedillo made clear his disapproval of California’s Proposition 187, saying he was opposed to denying education and health care to undocumented immigrants and that he supported bilin- gual education.
Three months after it was approved, Jesse Katz wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the measure and Governor Wilson “have been widely assailed as symbols of bigotry and xenophobia” in Mexico. Wilson’s support of Prop 187 resulted in Mexican officials boycotting a California trade event in Mexico City just prior to the election, Katz reported, and the governor was pronounced persona non grata by the Tijuana City Council.
Wanting to repair any damage in relations with Mexico, Katz wrote that an aide to the governor asked a prominent Texas banker to deliver a note to Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, but the banker, a Republican, declined. In a comment that would prove prophetic, Governor Manuel Cavazos Lerma of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas said scathingly of Wilson, “You may want to win an election, but you lose your destiny.”
There were many moments during the 187 campaign where dignity was absent, but one of the most memorable was Wilson’s ominous reelection commercial, still viewable on YouTube today, in which a grim narrator intones, “They keep coming,” over grainy, black-and-white security-cam footage of individuals and families running across Interstate 5 at the border south of San Diego.
Announcer: 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. Governor Pete Wilson sent the National Guard to help the Border Patrol, but that’s not all.
[Cut to color image of Wilson speaking.]
Wilson: For Californians who work hard, pay taxes, and obey the laws, I’m suing to force the federal government to control the border, and I’m working to deny state services to illegal immigrants. Enough is Enough.
The scene is familiar to those who today travel on Interstate 5 between San Diego and points north. If cars are whizzing through at a fast clip, one can assume the border patrol is not checking vehicles. But if the traffic slows to a near stop, the checkpoint is operating; vehicles slow to allow border patrol officers to look into each one before being waved through the check-point. Sometimes a vehicle is pulled out of the queue and parked, its trunk left gaping open as it sits near the border patrol building while its passengers are being interrogated inside the checkpoint building. As cars slow down before the checkpoint, people being smuggled in can jump out and head for the brush to travel north on foot.
Even Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican who was a prominent supporter of Proposition 187, said as recently as 2014 that he would still support 187, though he found the TV ad “polarizing and nasty.”
A few Republicans, like Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, who unsuccessfully challenged Wilson in the primary election, opposed the initiative, noting that anything that scared away immigrants would be bad for a state economy that depended on their contributions.
“In Los Angeles, the vast majority of hotel and restaurant workers are hard-working Hispanic immigrants, most of them here illegally, and anyone who believes that these unpleasant jobs would otherwise be filled by natives (either black or white) is living in a fantasy world,” Unz wrote for National Review in its November 1994 issue. “[And] Silicon Valley . . . is absolutely dependent upon immigrant professionals to maintain its technological edge and if they left, America’s computer industry would probably go with them.”
Former football star, congressman, cabinet secretary, and Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp made a stir when he defended his position against the initiative during a talk at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. He told the angry audience that he could not support a law that would “turn teachers and nurses into agents of the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service].” He “was so bothered in my conscience that I could not, in good conscience, support it, even though I know it will probably pass.” That day, Kemp, along with Reagan’s former secretary of education, William J. Bennett, issued a statement saying that they believed Proposition 187 to be unconstitutional and that it would “contribute to a nativist, anti-immigrant climate.” When Kemp was secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department under President George H. W. Bush, he refused to let INS agents inspect federal housing in search of undocumented immigrants.
The contradictions and outright hypocrisy of the state’s relation to undocumented immigrants would be cast in high relief throughout the heated 1994 U.S. Senate race between the incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco, and the Santa Barbara Republican congressman Michael Huffington. Despite their opposing political affiliations, both candidates competed to see who could appear to be tougher on illegal immigration—only to be embarrassed when news of their own employment of undocumented immigrants came to light.
Feinstein, with the media in tow, made trips to the Mexico-California border to highlight her enthusiasm for greater enforcement. She taunted Huffington (who endorsed 187) for failing to vote for beefed-up border security and ran her own tough-on-illegal-immigration version of the Wilson television ad, down to the similar surveillance footage of undocumented immigrants running north across the freeway. A year before Prop 187, Feinstein proposed a one-dollar-per-crossing “transit fee” for those coming into California from Mexico legally, mostly low-income laborers, to help pay for thousands of new border patrol agents and tamperproof work permits.
Feinstein’s ad, noting her efforts to secure a tighter border, began airing in July 1994, the same month Wilson’s ad was being broadcast. This strategy, bolstered by having fellow Democrat Bill Clinton (whose 1994 budget proposal trimmed ninety-three border patrol agents) in the White House, enabled a preemptive strike on the issue, cracking down at the border itself and perhaps hoping to thereby sate the public’s “bloodlust” ahead of Election Day.
Attorney General Janet Reno sent reinforcements, literally, by announcing the October 1 launch of Operation Gatekeeper, designed to beef up security on the San Diego stretch of the border. On October 22, less than three weeks before the election, in what was surely choreographed timing, Clinton and Feinstein balanced their tough border surveillance language by coming out against Proposition 187, declaring it unconstitutional and wrongheaded. “If you turn the teacher and other educators into instruments of a sort of state police force, it’s like bringing a Big Brother into the schools,” Clinton said at a nationally televised White House press conference.
Feinstein appeared apprehensive in her own comments at a luncheon speech for the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco that day. “I know that this could cost me votes, quite possibly even the election,” she said. “But I simply do not believe it will work.”
It is important to understand that the roots of Proposition 187 are deeper than any single politician’s ambition. In fact, Wilson did not formally endorse the initiative until late fall 1994, only a few weeks before Feinstein announced her opposition. But whether for or against the measure, politicians on all sides opportunistically fed the anti-immigrant hysteria they claimed was emanating from the citizenry.
As at other times in the state’s history, immigrants were scapegoated—for example, in the 1990s by those whose position in the status quo seemed precarious or threatened. By 1994, more than four decades after the height of the post–World War II boom, real wages had been stalled for a quarter century, and the best new jobs in the growing high-tech and health-care fields were not easily accessible to an older generation unused to career-hopping.
Military spending, long the backbone of California’s middle class—from the navy town of San Diego to the missile makers of Orange County to the electronics start-ups of Silicon Valley—had briefly but significantly shrunk in the wake of the Cold War’s end. Meanwhile, a major real estate bubble that allowed the middle class to borrow heavily against the inflated value of their homes had finally burst. And after decades of relative prosperity, few members of the urban working class, many of whom had once enjoyed solid union wages, were prepared to return to minimum-wage (or below) jobs as fruit pickers, hotel maids, or fast-food cooks.
As with wave after wave before them, those who would take those jobs were indigent immigrants willing to live in the most rudimentary conditions, whether to remit cash back to the homeland or scrimp to ensure a better future for their children here. Today, more immigrants come to California from Asia than Latin America, but in the 1990s they flocked from Mexico. Its own flailing economy, under considerable stress from the deregulatory policies of President Salinas and the new North American Free Trade Agreement, spurred the bulk of new residents, many of them simply hopping the fence near San Diego and walking into the state.Exploiting the fact that then as now many voters are ignorant of economic models that consistently show immigrants, legal or otherwise, are overall an economic boon, 187 backers were effective in singling out the direct health care, law enforcement, and education costs generated by undocumented residents, which came out of the state’s general fund. In reality, then as today, undocumented workers also generated taxable profits for companies, paid sales taxes, and were consumers who immediately pumped almost all of their earnings right back into their local economy.
Immigration, both legal and illegal, had been soaring during the boom years of the go-go ’80s without garnering much attention. But in a state known for the volatility of its economy (roughly double the national average), when times felt tough, as they did in 1994, perception was more important than individual financial reality, and “native” Californians predictably focused on perceived rivals. As in previous down cycles, immigrants were more likely to be seen as a burden than a boon, and undocumented workers and their families became a target of rising anger.
“Nowhere has this sentiment been more evident than in California,” wrote R. Michael Alvarez and Tara L. Butterfield in an academic paper they produced for the California Institute of Technology. They noted that during the 1990s, California experienced cutbacks in the defense industry and closure of military bases contributing to the loss of nearly a million jobs and the attendant loss of tax revenues. By 1994, the state was suffering through its worst recession since the Great Depression. The authors wrote that the downturn in the economy and the economic insecurity among the populace correlated to the introduction that year of thirty legislative bills and two citizen-initiated ballot initiatives dealing with immigration.
The authors’ study used exit polling, economic figures, and other data to show this pattern repeated itself in generating such strong support for 187. It should be noted, however, that the measure’s manifestation was in no way inevitable: Contemporary polls of voter priorities actually held immigration to be barely in the top ten or even fifteen issues facing the state. If powerful politicians, especially Wilson, had not thrown their weight behind it, it might have never reached critical mass. What Wilson and other 187 supporters accomplished with their ads and speeches was to explicitly marry the state’s budget and economic problems—far and away the number one concern of voters—to the immigration issue. This tactic was used by the 2016 Republican primary candidate Donald Trump with his exhortation against undocumented immigrants: “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”
Cleverly presented as a commonsense fairness issue, to avoid scaring off voters fearful of being considered discriminatory, Proposition 187’s passage was all but assured. Encouraged by a small but vocal subset of legal immigrants expressing anger at how “illegals” were benefiting from cheating (a “fairness” argument that allowed them to deny the proposition was racist) and finding bipartisan support in polls, Republicans were perhaps blind to the political trap into which they were falling headlong. The fact is that while even an old school Democrat like Feinstein could barely muster halfhearted opposition to it, Latinos and other immigrants angry about 187—not only in California but across the country, and especially the younger generation—would hold the Republicans responsible for its creation and sentiment years after the measure marred the California social and political landscape.
It was a watershed disaster for Republicans, who rode a self-righteous, nativist wave right into political irrelevance in the most important state in the country. At the time, however, Democrats gave no indication they understood this; they seemed to feel the wave was crashing on their own heads. Instead of baiting Republicans by aggressively defending immigrants and emphasizing that many Americans had less-than-stellar arrival stories, the blue party’s message on 187 was defensive, legalistic, and targeted directly at voters’ self- interest rather than their morality or compassion.
As Los Angeles Times reporters Patrick J. McDonnell and Dave Lesher wrote, “In explaining their opposition to the proposition, for example, Clin- ton and Feinstein emphasized two oft-cited potential impacts: an increase in crime by those youngsters denied schooling and left on their own on the streets, and a spread of disease by immigrants who would be unable to obtain immunizations and other health care.” Clinton and Feinstein also pounded on the financial costs of 187, particularly the possible loss of $15 billion in federal aid for health, education, and welfare benefits, and emphasized how silly it was to enact a law the Supreme Court would likely dismiss.
“In short, while leading Democrats did not endorse Proposition 187, they fully participated in constructing unauthorized immigration as a political and economic crisis that required uncompromising action, essentially affirming the rationale that fueled Proposition 187,” wrote Daniel Martinez HoSang in his book Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California.
While most state politicians were either stridently for Prop 187 or weakly against it, organized opposition to the initiative was hampered by a serious internal split between grassroots immigration activists and an establishment group, Taxpayers Against 187, the name chosen for the campaign by two Bay Area Republican consultants hired to run it. “The decision by a Democratic civil rights labor coalition to retain a Republican consultancy to derail a deeply radicalized ballot initiative spoke volumes about the limited confidence they had in their own ability to communicate with the electorate about this issue,” observed HoSang.
Even the first line of the “No on 187” ballot argument, signed by an interesting alliance—Sherman Block, the Los Angeles County sheriff, and the presidents of the California Teachers Association and the California Medical Association—was an attack on the undocumented: “Something must be done to stop the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the border.”
For those who believed most undocumented immigrants were exploited, hardworking people doing essential jobs other Californians were loath to do, this was outrageous. While Taxpayers Against 187, which feared having Latinos as presenters of their arguments, tapped Sheriff Block to be a main spokesperson, the grassroots activists ultimately organized massive student protests that would later be blamed for inciting a greater reactionary response.
With only a few weeks before the election, the split broke into the open on October 16, when an estimated seventy thousand people marched from primarily Spanish-speaking East Los Angeles downtown to City Hall. Media coverage across the state fixated on the colorful images of young Latinos carrying Mexican flags through the streets of California’s biggest city like a conquering army. (Years later, refining their message, the predominantly Latino participants in other massive Los Angeles immigration rallies carried American flags.) Over the next three weeks, tens of thousands of students from high schools and colleges across the state would walk out of classes in opposition to 187. For many in that generation of Latinos, it would be their first clear political act, and for some it would be the beginning of a lifetime of civic engagement.
Despite some wildly inaccurate polling that showed a dead heat, Proposition 187 passed easily, with the support of one-quarter of Latino voters. Californians concentrated in glitzy enclaves hugging the state’s coastline, in the canyons and hills, or in the luxury high-rises and gated communities could comfortably continue to rely, wittingly or not, on a huge undocumented labor force to clean their houses, weed and manicure their gardens, take care of their children, cook their meals, look after their aging parents, and exercise their horses.
While the word “servant” was not usually in the lexicon of the often- liberal elites, it could not be ignored that the tree-lined blocks of mansions with their lush, landscaped grounds were inhabited mostly by white people and maintained by an impressive force of immigrant labor busing in each morning from some distant barrio. Sometimes they are “live-ins.” I recall being at a middle school fundraiser at a vast two-story private home in the swank Brentwood section of West Los Angeles, where a staff of Latinos attended to the guests. I asked my son’s classmate, whose parents owned the home, how many people lived there. His reply: “Ten of us, my family of five and five servants.” Needless to say, nobody would be much interested in making such arrangements even more awkward—or expensive—by asking live-in workers for papers.
In the same way, the state as a whole was content to look away from employers who threw a pittance to maltreated farm, sweatshop, and kitchen workers, largely hidden from the public’s eye. It was simply easier not to have to question which employers were complying with federal and state labor, employment tax, and health and safety laws.
The Wilson administration, in an exceptional example, did initiate a pre-187, five-year state-federal-local project, Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP), that targeted farm and sweatshop owners for violating labor laws, rather than immigrant workers for being undocumented. The goal was to level the playing field for employers who were obeying labor laws while competitors were shamefully exploiting and abusing undocumented workers, including child laborers, for greater profit. One well-publicized case in 1995 involved freeing seventy-two Thai garment workers held as slaves for six years in a building in the Los Angeles County city of El Monte; they eventually won permanent residency and $4 million in back pay.
For fiscal years 1993–94 to 1997–98, TIPP recovered $14.2 million in wages for workers and $4.6 million in penalty assessments. Garments worth $26.6 million were seized and donated to hospitals, clinics, and charities for women and children. One of the top officials operating the program told me at the time that wealthy garment manufacturers and farm owners whose property had been raided and who had been cited (including for 501 child labor violations) complained to lawmakers in Sacramento. When Wilson left office, the program was discontinued by his successor, Gray Davis.
For politicians during the 187 debate, the issue could be difficult, especially if they sought, as most did, to portray themselves as hard-liners against illegal immigration. Just weeks before the 1994 election, the surging Huffington was flummoxed by revelations that he and his then wife, Arianna Huffington, had employed an undocumented woman as a nanny for five years.
It was a huge embarrassment to his campaign, and he asked his wife back in Santa Barbara to discharge the nanny to mitigate any further damage. (The next time Arianna flew into Washington with their young daughters, they were accompanied by the nanny. Arianna Huffington later told me that the little girls were very attached to their nanny and she did not have the heart to suddenly sever the relationship.)
Michael Huffington countered that Feinstein had also employed an undocumented housekeeper back in the 1980s. The Democrat was legalistic in her response, noting that she hadn’t actually broken the law then and that, besides, she had recently come out against the initiative anyway. Huffington narrowly lost the race, by less than 2 percent, despite pouring in some $28 million of his own money. He never ran for public office again.
In retrospect, Wilson and the Republicans in 1994 pursued short-term gain for what became long-term pain. The governor was reelected easily over Kathleen Brown, effectively ending her political career, but in the long run he became permanently associated with “losing” California for the Republicans. Proposition 187 ended up haunting the GOP right through to 2014, when President Obama, whose administration deported more immigrants than all other presidents combined, used an executive order to put into place a controversial partial amnesty, bypassing eternally stalled congressional immigration reforms. Moderate Republicans were frantic that the still-vituperative nativist energy expressed by its party base would doom it to continued failure in presidential elections. That was before Donald Trump upped the ante with his inflammatory rhetoric.
It may seem odd to blame a state proposition for such a long-term national effect, but Prop 187 not only became a debate that even the president entered but was also credited with spawning copycat legislation in other states and even in D.C. For example, Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform included the elimination of payments to undocumented families, regardless of need (some of these cuts later were restored).
“It took the idea from Prop 187, this idea that immigrants were a drag to the economy and they were coming for benefits,” Joseph Villela, director of policy and advocacy for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told the Orange County Register.
In fact, while the common perception, particularly among conservatives, may be that California is teeming with “illegals,” more than 70 percent of foreign-born Californians have legal status; 47 percent are naturalized citizens, while 26 percent have green cards or visas. Another 27 percent are counted as undocumented by the Homeland Security Department.
Wilson likely rued the day he made such a poor political bargain, despite success for him personally, with many historians now pointing to Prop 187 as the beginning of a long decline in his party’s significance in California that endures today, with ripple effects nationwide. Republican registration has dropped to 27.6 percent in California, where the growing Latino population surpassed non-Hispanic whites in March 2014. (Democrats are at 43.1 percent while 24 percent claim no party preference.)In recent elections, even in the primaries, California Republicans have not been eager to cozy up to Wilson’s legacy, a slight exception being the 2010 gubernatorial race in which former eBay CEO Meg Whitman chose Wilson to be her campaign cochair. It was tantamount to political suicide from a candidate who was trying on the one hand to appear tough on undocumented immigrants and on the other to have ads in Spanish courting Latinos. It didn’t help that she fired her housekeeper of nine years, an undocumented immigrant Whitman described as like “a member of the family,” two months before the election. The termination was either because Whitman had just learned the housekeeper was undocumented—Whitman’s version of the saga—or because the housekeeper asked for help gaining legal status—her version. The woman ended up getting $5,500 in back wages in a settlement with Whitman and her husband. In the end, Jerry Brown got 73 percent of the Latino vote to Whitman’s 27 percent.
A 2013 survey on the effects of Proposition 187 on California and the nation by the Seattle-based public opinion research firm Latino Decisions found that 84 percent of Latino voters had “some degree of concern” that Whitman had selected Wilson as her campaign cochair.
In a conclusion two years ago that easily could be taken as a current cautionary note for the Republican Party, a summary of the survey reported: “This should serve as a reminder to the national GOP that the statements and positions taken today could have long-lasting effects on Latino voters if they are seen as negative and severe as the Wilson/187 policies back in 1994.”
My former sister-in-law, Sandra Molina (now Madar), is a perfect model to illustrate that point. Prop 187 was one of life’s defining moments for her, just as it was for tens of thousands of Latinos, and just as Donald Trump’s anti-Latino rants and hurtful words will be defining moments for many others, having a negative impact on the Republican Party nationally for years to come. In Sandra’s case, having fled Nicaragua in her early twenties after her brother was killed in the revolution, she was not eager to change citizenship, even after marrying my brother. Nor was she interested in politics. Then came Proposition 187. She was appalled and hurt by the rhetoric of the campaign, which implied, she said, that all Latinos were criminals or gang members or just here to “mooch” off the government.
“The people supporting 187 should have known you can’t get any government services if you are undocumented,” she said. “We were made to feel discriminated against, like we were not contributing to society. … In the kitchens in every restaurant, everywhere in society, we were doing the dirty work the white people did not want to do. And we were not recognized as taxpayers, as hardworking people. It felt horrible. I wanted desperately to become a citizen so that I could vote for the Democrats. I wanted to vote for Bill Clinton.” Sandra became part of Clinton’s Citizenship USA initiative of 1995–96, which urged more immigrants to become citizens and to line them up as voters.
In June 1996, Sandra gathered with ten thousand fellow aspiring citizens at the Los Angeles Convention Center to take the oath of citizenship, a ceremony that was repeated for another thirty-eight thousand new citizens that month in Texas, Florida, and New York—states with large Electoral College numbers useful in the upcoming November presidential election.
At Sandra’s ceremony, which my family and I attended, each immigrant found a voter registration card on his or her chair, and each received a congratulatory letter from President Clinton. We heard a speaker lecture about the vital importance of each new citizen fulfilling his or her responsibility in our democracy by voting, reminding all that they could vote in the upcoming presidential election. When we walked out of the convention center into the bright sunny afternoon, there were about a dozen tables set up with volunteers to register new voters. While the new citizens could choose their party, signage at the tables indicated Republicans staffed only one table, and Democrats staffed all the others. The lines of those registering as Democrats grew as the convention hall emptied.
It all seemed carefully scripted, but to Sandra, who immediately registered as a Democrat, “It felt great, I was so psyched.” Sandra subsequently was divorced, remarried, moved to Connecticut, became a preschool teacher, and returned to college to study speech pathology. She became a lifelong Democratic political activist, volunteering for Democratic officeholders, and even involving her two children in campaigns. She was pictured on the cover of a 2012 campaign brochure for Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, of Connecticut; she assumed she had been invited to be photographed with the congresswoman in order to attract other Hispanics to the candidate, and she was happy to oblige.
It is probable that Sandra would have registered as a Democrat without having lived through the Proposition 187 campaign, but its stinging rhetoric created an insult whose scars were so deep that it energized a lifetime of loyalty to the party. Sandra’s example is borne out in the aforementioned report by Latino Decisions, which found: “the number of Latino voters grew quickly in response to perceived attacks on the Latino community,” and that compared to states including New York and Texas that were not experiencing an anti-immigrant climate, “the research clearly demonstrates that Latino voter registration in California increased much faster than anticipated by population growth alone.” They found an increase in Latino votes for the California Democratic Party throughout the 2000s. “Not only did more Latinos start voting, they started voting heavily against the Republican Party.”
With wisdom from the past, one can better see the future: The disaffection for the Republican Party that has grown among California Latinos for decades may presage the negative ramifications for the Republican Party nationally due to Trump’s anti-immigrant remarks. Back in 1994, half of the fifty-two-member California congressional delegation was Republican; by 2015 it was 26 percent. By 2015, thirty of California’s fifty-three congressional districts (nearly 57 percent) were at least 30 percent Latino, including nine of the state’s fourteen districts represented by Republicans, who could be vulnerable in future elections.
GOP congressman David Valadao recognizes that as much as anyone. The son of Portuguese immigrants, Valadao represents a Central Valley agricultural district that is 70 percent Latino. When he announced at a community meeting in the summer of 2013 that he supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he was wildly cheered. At least two other California Republican congressmen from heavily Latino districts made similar statements. They are not alone among Republican officeholders in the state. Republican politicians in California today must contend with the fact that every year since 1994, the state’s electorate has been getting less Anglo and less Republican, providing more Latino votes to Democrats. The lesson from California for the rest of the nation is pretty clear, but although the sirens have been sounding a warning in Washington, congressional Republicans in the nation’s capital continue to head their party ship straight for the rocks.
In mid-2014, Texan Ted Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts in Congress crashed a compromise immigration bill and came up with one that would ease deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, which seemed more likely to solidify far right support than become law anytime soon. Neither the Canadian-born Cruz nor members of his Cuban immigrant family ever had to worry about their status in this country; Cruz’s mother was an American citizen, and Cubans who left the island and set foot on U.S. soil have had a special status guaranteeing a fast track to U.S. citizenship.
Cruz’s anti-immigrant tactics make fellow Texan and heavy-duty Republican Steve Munisteri’s hair stand on end, judging from an interview with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in November 2012. Munisteri, who served as Republican Party chairman in Cruz’s home state from 2010 to 2015, predicted his party’s demise in Texas and nationally if Republicans do not do more to attract Latinos.
Lizza wrote: “Munisteri … turned to a chart showing Texas’s population by ethnic group over the next few decades. A red line, representing the white population, plunged from almost fifty-five per cent, in 2000, to almost twenty-five per cent, in 2040; a blue line, the Hispanic population, climbed from thirty-two per cent to almost sixty per cent during the same period.”
Munisteri wants his party in Texas and nationally to do something to avert what happened with the African American community, whose voting bloc has been solidly for the Democrats for decades. He told Lizza, “You can’t do that with a group of citizens that are going to compose a majority of this state by 2020. … By 2040, you’d have to get over a hundred percent of the Anglo vote.”
While every syllable of Donald Trump’s rhetoric was being translated into future votes for Democrats, and the Tea Party was finding its voice as a xenophobic movement, California was moving in the other direction, and some Republican political realists in the state took notice.
“We’re finally breaking out of denial,” Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican consultant in state politics, told the New York Times. “Until we solve our Latino problem, we’re not going to be a viable state party, and it’s hard to understand how that’s possible without fixing immigration.”
The polarizing Prop 187 campaign and the outpouring of protest it elicited “changed our lives forever,” state assemblyman Luis Alejo told the Orange County Register. Alejo, the grandchild of fruit pickers brought to California by the bracero guest worker program, said, “Many of us were driven into political activism because of that draconian, anti-immigration proposition.”
Kevin de Leon, the first Latino elected to serve as state senate president pro tem in more than a century, also became an activist during that historic fall, helping organize one of the massive Los Angeles rallies. In 2014, de Leon got in the final word on Proposition 187 when he wrote a measure to repeal the remaining unenforceable provisions of the initiative that were still in the record. Governor Brown signed the bill given to him by the Democratic-majority legislature, hammering the final nail in the law’s coffin.
It was just one of many new laws passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by Brown that have eased burdens on undocumented immigrants, including enshrining in law the right of undocumented students to receive in-state tuition rates at public colleges and to apply for loans at those institutions, to apply for professional licenses, to be licensed to practice law, and to work in polling places. Most dramatic, perhaps, on January 1, 2015, those with no legal right to be in the state became eligible to apply for a California driver’s license; fifty thousand new drivers passed their tests and were licensed to drive by the end of that month.
These laws, accepting the presence of the undocumented immigrants and allowing them access to state resources, were maddening to a large number of conservative Californians, many of them still clustered in rural and suburban counties—the “red” portions of California—especially those who identified with the Tea Party phenomenon. By 2014, however, they seemed resigned to their own minority status in the state’s political ecosystem. When Obama’s executive order to protect about five million undocumented residents from deportation sparked outrage across the country, protests in California were small and generally ignored.
“Other parts of the country are experiencing the same kind of demographic and cultural shifts that California did some time ago, so now they’re struggling through the same policy debates that we’ve already experienced,” said Dan Schnur, a former Wilson spokesman who heads the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. “It just moves east.”
That California is now a standard-bearer for more moderate, liberal government, its position on immigration may seem like a given, especially in the light of the general—and largely incorrect—reputation the state has as a bastion of leftist “bleeding hearts.” And if one reads shorthand journalistic accounts of how California went from hard-line Proposition 187 to the current wave of pragmatic legislation, it can seem quite simplistic: The initiative upset the rising demographic Latino group, resulting in a seismic political shift. The reality, however, was much more gradual and subtle. In fact, not only did Proposition 187 win passage, but it was followed up in the two succeeding elections by other populist, conservative “fairness” initiatives that sharply divided the state. In other words, change happens, if not always overnight.
Neither the anti–affirmative action Proposition 209 on the November 1996 ballot nor the anti–bilingual education Proposition 227 in 1998 directly targeted immigrants, yet they shared many similarities with 187. For example, none of the three was generated directly by political elites in Sacramento but rather were pushed forward by passionate individual ideologues with deep pockets and powerful political connections. They were furious at what they perceived as institutionalized unfairness to the Anglo majority that had dominated the state in all aspects for more than a century and how that disrespected “American” values.
Proposition 209 banned state and local governments from considering race, gender, or ethnicity in public education admission, employment hiring, and contracting agreements. It was drafted by two academics and had several fathers, but it became closely associated with its most aggressive and supportive public proponent, Ward Connerly. Appointed to the University of California Board of Regents by his longtime political benefactor, Pete Wilson, the African American land-use consultant convinced his fellow regents to ban UC’s long-controversial affirmative action policy in 1995. He scored a bigger victory on the issue the following year, when the ban was extended to all government agencies.
Prodded by the evolving civil rights movement that had shown that changing laws was not always enough to transform society, President Kennedy thrust the term “affirmative action” into the civic discourse in 1961. He issued an executive order to the federal government to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Hundreds of years of suffering discrimination, abuse, and enslavement had left such scars, the argument went, that equal opportunity for minorities was not going to happen within an acceptable time frame unless elite institutions took “affirmative” action.As United States policy, it was reaffirmed by President Johnson four years later with an expanded order to prohibit government contractors from discriminating and extended the policy to protect women two years after that. The concept eventually became the norm for universities, Fortune 500 companies, and other institutions eager to create a mechanism to hasten integration, whether because of public relations or because they believed that diversity would strengthen the institution or organization.
In June 1978, the Supreme Court had ruled on a discrimination lawsuit brought by Allan Bakke, a white male who believed he was unfairly excluded from a University of California medical school because of quotas that reserved 16 percent of incoming classes for minority applicants. Signaling the way they would handle affirmative action cases for the next few decades, the jurists returned a ruling with six separate opinions affirming the constitutionality of affirmative action but rejecting strict quotas, making it much more difficult to accomplish.
The Bakke case became a rallying cry for white conservatives and, later, some Asian Americans who feared that affirmative action quotas would undermine their growing numbers in university admissions. Yet mainstream politicians in California had no desire to aggressively champion a cause that could make them look harsh or even racist. It would take a Pete Wilson crony, who was African American himself, to serve as the triggerman for the execution of affirmative action in California. Step one for Connerly was leading the UC Regents—mostly political appointees who were large donors to winning campaigns—to altogether ban the practice for the state’s top-tier university system. With that accomplished in 1995, and the concept of opposing affirmative action normalized, he successfully barnstormed on behalf of Proposition 209. It was a political tour de force that made the previously anonymous Connerly one of the most cheered and reviled Californians almost overnight. Meanwhile, his political patron, Wilson, who was running for president, decided to use the fight against affirmative action as a central plank in his campaign.
Although Wilson did not gain traction as a candidate, 209 became a legitimate debate topic, with President Clinton opposing it and eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole giving support. Soon, the Republican establishment swung in behind 209; the national party platform for 1996 called for support of the state proposition “to restore to law the original meaning of civil rights.”
While the reach of Proposition 209 went far beyond the state’s illustrious university system, it was the issue of admission to these springboards to the middle class that dominated debate both before and after the measure’s passage (54 to 46 percent), keyed by the state’s steadily declining yet still politically dominant prosperous white male demographic. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll Jewish voters (58 percent) and females (52 percent) rejected the measure, as did three-quarters of blacks and Latinos. Voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine split 50-50, while the wealthier and more conservative the voters, the more likely they endorsed 209.
The consequences of its passage, for those appalled by the already proportionally tiny enrollment of most minority groups in the state’s university system, were shocking. In 1995, the year before 209, the freshman enrollment of self-identified African American students (945), Native Americans (248), and Chicanos/Latinos (3,432) to University of California campuses was at an all-time high; by 1998 all three demographic groups had seen those numbers plummet.
Of course, for those who had fought for Prop 209 on the basis of fairness—the so-called “level playing field”—minority enrollment decline after its passage was a validation, not a problem. Equality of opportunity was the alleged goal of the mainstream, yet for most this meant transparent and fair entrance requirements and some scholarship support; any factor that was difficult to measure—racism, for example—was inconvenient and messy.
It would take a full decade, until 2006, for the number of African Americans to return to 1995 real-number levels—Native Americans never have—and by 2013, the percentage of black UC freshmen enrollment stalled at 4.0 percent, compared with a similar 4.3 percent two decades earlier.
Latino enrollment bounced back more, and more quickly. By 2014, for the first time in the state university system’s history, the percentage of incoming UC Latino freshmen (29.6 percent) surpassed that of non-Hispanic white people (27.8 percent). In the state’s general population they comprise 39 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Asian Americans (14.1 percent of the state population) were 38.3 percent of freshman admissions. By January 2015, four UC campuses boasted Latino undergraduate enrollments of more than 35 percent.
Because Proposition 187 had been immediately and successfully blocked in the courts, many opponents hoped the same would happen for 209, which they considered equally reactionary. But lawsuits failed to block the initiative’s implementation in both the short term and long term; the new state constitution language was upheld by the federal courts in 2000 and has remained in effect ever since.
From 2012 to 2014, the state legislature bandied about a Senate constitutional amendment to essentially repeal 209. But after it passed and appeared headed for the 2016 ballot, the measure ran aground in the Assembly amid massive opposition from Asian Americans, claiming it was an example of “Yellow Peril” racism.
A year after the Proposition 209 election, activist Republicans, pleased with their success in rolling back liberal policies in two successive elections, went after a third one in June 1998 that proved just as divisive as the others. Wealthy businessman and failed 1994 gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz gave financial backing to Proposition 227 to kill bilingual education, which Unz and other conservatives believed was a wrongheaded product of liberal-endorsed multiculturalism. Arguing that rapid assimilation of immigrants was to everybody’s benefit, the proposition was quite detailed in mandating specific rules for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students in the public K–12 schools.
As with 187 and 209, the proposition’s backers insisted there was no malice toward any particular ethnic or racial group underlying their “common sense” solutions, yet many in immigrant communities certainly felt targeted.
“I think Latino voters and families are feeling threatened and they’re feeling undue attention on them,” Guillermo Rodriguez, executive director of the statewide Latino Issues Forum, told a Contra Costa Times reporter.64 “Some- how they are being questioned on how American they are.”
Other observers wondered if the details of the educational micromanaging inherent in 227 were flying way over the heads of both the media and the general public. And was “bilingual education” an actual problem or just a hot button issue to symbolically affirm an “English only” defense of Anglo America? While education and linguistic experts could be found on either side of the debate, teachers’ unions were appalled on principle: Why should politicians or even voters be managing how education was delivered at the classroom level?
Conservatives answered that bilingual education was itself a cultural artifact of the 1960s national-identity movements rather than a well-founded educational approach, foisted on the country by Chicano activists hoping to protect their culture from assimilation.
Univision billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio, previously a donor to Wilson, made a last-minute $1.5 million donation to the campaign to oppose 227, and the biggest California teachers’ union also kicked in $2 million. Spanish- language Univision also ran frequent editorials against the initiative. But all that would prove to be too little, too late; 227, or the English for the Children Act, would prove even more popular than 209 and 187 before it, winning in a landslide, 61-39 percent.
In hindsight, the shrillness of the English-only crowd seems somewhat absurd in an era when McDonald’s now markets a hamburger with both Mexican jalapeño peppers and Thai Sriracha sauce, the children of middle- class suburbanites pay inordinate sums to gentrify urban cores made interesting by the cultural richness of immigrant communities, and the increasing frequency of intermarriage means that many Californians consider themselves to be living embodiments of multiculturalism.
What was clear about Prop 227 is that while mostly white conservatives concerned with rapid demographic change in California had secured another victory at the ballot box, it didn’t change the fact that their state was going to continue to become more Latino and Asian every year for the foreseeable future.
In the end, a funny thing happened on the ride to a conservative, hard-line California run by populist initiative: The steam ran out. With the 2003 recall of the Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and the election of charismatic Republican action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans could be forgiven for fantasizing about a return to power. But the very initiative process that they had found so much friendlier than the liberal state legislature, dominated by Democratic heavyweights like Willie Brown and John Burton, proved Schwarzenegger’s Waterloo when voters, in a major blow to his political career, rejected his 2005 conservative-supported special election “reform agenda.”
There were eight measures on the ballot, four measures for which the governor strenuously campaigned. Those would have slowed the growth of state spending, redrawn congressional and legislative district lines, made public- school teachers work longer to gain tenure, and restricted the spending on political campaigns by public employee unions. The latter two concepts galvanized teachers, nurses, and firefighters, and their unions’ expensive ad campaign against the governor was quite damaging to his popularity. Four other measures on the ballot also were rejected; the cost of waging the eight campaigns totaled $417 million. Polls showed that people did not want the expensive election, did not like the governor so much at that point, and were unhappy about the way the state was headed. There was a respectable turnout of 50 percent, but voters wanted to show their anger. Schwarzenegger was chastened.
The lesson with propositions 187, 209, and 227 was that when it came to carefully crafted “fairness” initiatives attacking policies generally unpopular with the mainstream—bilingualism, illegal immigration, affirmative action—Californians were willing to overlook what critics saw as underlying racism or xenophobia. Yet, despite this, the state was gradually becoming more diverse, more Democratic, and more tolerant of cultural difference, not just in the cities but in the increasingly nonwhite suburbs.
The California propositions, whether gummed up in the courts or not, were important symbolically but were not game changers as policy; further- more, they inflamed and radicalized a generation of young minority leaders who might otherwise have accepted the “postracial” view of America a half century after the height of the civil rights movement. If the goal had been partly to beat back the rise of “identity politics,” the backers of propositions 187, 209, and 227 had instead only confirmed to many its importance.
By 2015, California was home to one out of every four foreign-born people in the United States—more than 10 million immigrants, greater in number than any other state, and Latinos had passed non-Latino whites as the biggest ethnic/racial group. Roughly half are naturalized citizens and another quarter have some form of legal status; the rest are undocumented, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. While the state’s rate of immigration has slowed since a whopping 2.4 million immigrants arrived in the 1990s, a still-formidable 1.3 million came in the 2000s.
People of color have become California’s majority—61 percent of the state’s residents—while as of 2015, the new minority of non-Hispanic whites rests at 38.4 percent while Hispanics are 39 percent. Asians compose 13 percent, while blacks and African Americans are 5.7 percent of the state’s 39 million residents. These figures are practically the inversion of the population of the total fifty states, which is 37 percent people of color and 63 percent Anglo.
“Demographics is destiny, and, at the core, we’re seeing a historic shift of almost a reconquest,” Chapman College political science professor Fred Smoller told the Orange County Register for a twenty-year retrospective on the impact of 187. “The state is changing permanently.”
Assimilation does happen over time, of course, through intermarriage, co-education, and generational drift, particularly for those who attain middle-class status. But the process is not always fast, consistent, or inevitable, especially if economic, cultural, and geographic isolation are in play. In a state and country where the expansion of the middle class has stagnated and is now receding, islands of self-segregation have persisted, despite the globalization of the English language and the admission of representatives of every group into the educational and corporate hierarchies.
Whereas the backers of propositions 187, 209, and 227 argued for “color-blind” government, at least partly on the basis that assimilation is a fundamental American value, those hoping to “Americanize” immigrant and minority groups pragmatically might be better off supporting anything that will help them prosper. The more education and employment people have, the more likely they are to integrate into mainstream culture and accept its norms and laws.
Such is the hidden premise behind new laws like Assembly Bill 60, nicknamed Drive California, which are the antithesis of the Proposition 187 ethos. This aforementioned driver’s-license measure is symbolic of the state’s changing demographics that helped deliver Jerry Brown the governor’s office. It also is a perfect example of changing sentiment among voters. Up until 1993, undocumented residents could obtain a driver’s license just like any other resident of California. But the immigrant bashing surrounding Proposition 187 prompted the legislature to pass a law requiring license applicants to prove they had legal status. Governor Gray Davis, fighting for his political life and facing a recall election, signed a bill revoking the 1993 law, but it was short-lived. Public sentiment at the time was against providing the privilege of driving to people in the country illegally.
Signing the bill hurt Davis and helped his main opponent, Schwarzenegger, who promised in the recall campaign to rescind the law—which he did. The position against granting licenses to undocumented people, which nearly a dozen other states had taken, was foolish, since drivers without a license—the only alternative for thousands of undocumented people who needed to get to work and drive their children to school—did not have to pass written and driving tests proving their proficiency behind the wheel or to obtain insurance. The personal cost to them also could be great: getting caught driving without a license could result in having their cars impounded and sold at auction and being processed for deportation. But those days, and those fears, have ended.
On the last evening of the 2013 legislative session, in the frenzy that overtakes the capital in the hours before the midnight deadline to get bills passed, a legislator ran into Brown in the capital and mentioned that the driver’s license bill had been taken off the calendar, killing it for the session. Brown told him if the legislature passed it, he would sign it. Last-minute scrambling ensued, and the senate resuscitated the bill and sent it to the assembly, where it was approved before midnight, to take effect in January 2015.
Legislators were taken by surprise. Brown had campaigned in 2010 against granting driver’s licenses to undocumented drivers, saying at the time it should be part of a comprehensive federal immigration reform package. But after two years with no action from Washington, Brown and the legislature acted. Upon passage of the new law, Brown commented, “Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due.”
On January 2, the first business day of 2015, nearly 9,300 Californians made advance appointments with the Department of Motor Vehicles, while others lined up as early as 4 a.m., in freezing weather in some parts of the state. In the first three months of the law taking effect, nearly five hundred thousand new undocumented drivers were issued their license with a special designation: “Federal Limits Apply.” By the end of 2015, that number grew to 605,000. The state expects to issue 1.4 million licenses to undocumented immigrants through 2017. One positive side effect is that all of these drivers will be required to carry liability insurance. “It’s going to be a big change,” San Leandro construction worker Francisco Galvez told the San Jose Mercury News at the Hayward DMV. “I can get to work without fear. I can have a normal life.”
California’s move was followed in 2015 with federal regulations allowing undocumented immigrants with legal-resident children or spouses to have work permits and protection from deportation. The principle is the same: If you can drive, work, and live without fear, you will be less isolated, more productive, and less of a potential burden on the society as a whole.
Just as Jerry Brown has been helpful to Latino assimilation, that demographic group came through for him in 2010, giving him 64 percent of its vote to Meg Whitman’s 31 percent, and again in 2014, when Brown rolled over his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, 73 to 27 percent among Latinos closely matching Barack Obama’s 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent.
None of this is lost on the Republican Party of California, which itself has become a model in reaching out to long-alienated groups by softening hard-line positions offensive to them. It has responded in a constructive way to the very cultural and demographic shifts in the state and nation that the national party chooses to ignore, at its peril. The California party leadership and membership have done this by taking action to attempt to expand their tent by being more welcoming of groups long alienated from the Republican Party.
In March 2015, for example, the state party voted overwhelmingly (75 to 25 percent) to welcome as a charter member the gay Log Cabin Republicans of California. One delegate noted, “It would have been the complete opposite fifteen years ago. The fringe does not control the party anymore.” At least that is true in California. Just six months later, in a better-late-than-never moment, delegates to the party’s statewide convention proposed adding “sexual orientation” to the list of groups protected from housing and employment discrimination.
After the reach-out to gays, and with no sign that Donald Trump would cease spewing his anti-immigrant rhetoric, convention delegates took an important if in some ways symbolic step of voting to change the party platform on immigration. Party members voted to delete the words “illegal alien” from the platform language and softened the tone if not the intent of other immigration-related positions. For example, the phrase “new immigrants should be required to learn English, and businesses should be able to require employees to speak the English language while on the job” was substituted with “learning English is a vital part of life in the United States. Therefore, fluency in English must be the goal of California’s education programs.”
The party’s position that all election ballots and government documents should be printed only in English was eliminated, as was a statement that “allowing illegal immigrants to remain in California undermines respect for the law.”
The platform changes were drafted by Marcelino Valdez, the Central Valley chair of the state Republican Party, who said the new language was approved by the platform committee with 75 percent of the vote and by about 90 percent of the general assembly, including some Tea Party delegates. Valdez referred to the new platform as “an anti–Proposition 187 plank” and called it “a monumental day in California politics.”
That old specter continues to haunt, however. Harmeet Dhillon, the state Republican Party vice chair, was realistic, telling Los Angeles Times political reporter Cathleen Decker at the convention: “There are going to be people that if we made the chair of the party and the top of the ticket somebody born of immigrant parents, it would not convince them that we are the right party for them because of the history of 187 and other issues.”
One of those “issues” is the party’s new spoiler, Donald Trump, who “brings back a lot of rancor of the 1990s, and I think that will hurt us,” said Republican state assemblyman Rocky Chavez, of Oceanside, in San Diego County, a retired Marine Corps colonel. He was both optimistic and realistic: “We’re evolving. Anything that doesn’t evolve and change dies.”