Twenty years ago this summer, California lost its mind. The Golden State embraced its worst impulses and was whipped into a frenzy of xenophobia masquerading as public policy.
Proposition 187, the “Save our State” initiative that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, was all the rage.
And yes, rage was the accurate word. People were raging about “illegal” immigrants all day every day that crazy summer. The flames were fanned by endless campaign commercials showing immigrants running across our borders while an announcer ominously warned: “They keep coming.”
Then Gov. Pete Wilson, otherwise a decent man, pandered to deeply held biases and rode them all the way to re-election when he had been vulnerable in a down economy.
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It didn’t matter that immigrants were coming to California in search of jobs and not services. Nobody wanted to hear it. It didn’t matter that immigrants were taking jobs that most Americans didn’t want. Nobody wanted to hear it.
It didn’t matter that the rhetoric from Prop. 187 became a tidal wave that breached the levees of reasoning. It may have started out as a law to target “illegals,” but it became a campaign that profiled an ethnic group – people from Mexico and anyone who looked like they were Mexican.
Proposition 187 made intolerance mainstream in California politics and popular culture.
It was the granddaddy of the current anti-immigrant draconian laws in Arizona, Alabama and beyond.
Political pros like Wilson and his team may have been astute at couching their words in acceptable language, but their target audiences were not so circumspect.
“Mexican” became the ultimate dirty word in California. It didn’t matter that businesses profited greatly from cheap (brown) labor or that the leading chambers of commerce, farmers and other major employers were no more in favor of immigration controls than the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Nobody had the guts or the standing to push back. Gov. Jerry Brown’s sister, Kathleen, meant well as the Democratic challenger to Wilson, but the old mayor of San Diego ate her campaign for lunch.
There is an entire generation of Latino legislators at the Capitol who came of age at that time and became motivated to enter politics as a way to fight back. Kevin de Léon, today’s incoming leader of the state Senate, was organizing anti-Prop. 187 protests two decades ago.
Latino politicos prevailed in the long run, but they lost big in 1994. More than 5 million Californians voted in favor of Prop. 187 while Wilson won in a landslide.
The courts, however, ultimately ruled the ballot initiative was unconstitutional – that California did not have the right to legislate immigration law or access to public benefits.
De Léon and others like him have now changed the political dynamic, and the Republican Party is on its heels in California.
But let’s not throw a ticker tape parade just yet.
Poverty among Latinos in our state remains high at nearly 24 percent, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“In California, being poor means being Latino,” said Mike Madrid, who runs GrassrootsLab, a California-based political research and data firm.
“There is a disparity between rich and poor that is going to get bigger. You are going to have white people who are wealthy and Latinos who are poor. That is a recipe for disaster.”
Don’t believe him? Divisions stoked by fear are still with us.
Just last week, residents of the Riverside County town of Murrieta confronted buses carrying women and children from Central America who had fled violence in their home countries. The U.S. government had transported the refugees to a Border Patrol processing center in Murrieta to sort out their cases, until flag-waving vigilantes intervened.
It’s what happens when the politics of fear are repeated through the years. Humans fitting a certain profile are seen as invaders.
Now that de Léon and others are in charge, the question needs to be posed to them: What is their agenda to combat Latino poverty in California?
A key component is needed reform of California’s public schools. In ruling that the state’s teacher tenure rules are unconstitutional, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu recently wrote that, “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students. … The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
But de Léon and other Latino legislators are deep in bed with the California Teachers Association, the powerful lobby fighting Treu’s ruling and the implication that Latino students are greatly afflicted by ineffective teachers in their schools.
This is the reality that pokes a hole in the narrative of political progress since Prop. 187. There has been a great deal of symbolic progress, but not enough real progress. Electing more Latino legislators was seen as part of the solution, but the compromises they made to get elected may make them part of the problem.
The politics of Proposition 187 are out of fashion now – there’s a new generation of leaders. But societal ills continue to afflict California Latinos, the state’s largest ethnic group.
Because of this, there can be no victory laps 20 years after Prop. 187. Pete Wilson is long gone – you can’t blame him anymore. The young people who fought him are now in charge, and the future is on them.