California Forum

Prop. 187 threatened CA immigrant families – and inspired a new generation of leaders

It was 1994. Los Angeles picked itself up after the Northridge earthquake. Americans watched O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco cruise up the 405 freeway.

And California Gov. Pete Wilson, desperate to win re-election, shamelessly blamed immigrants for his own political shortcomings by putting Proposition 187 on the ballot.

By early November, Republicans had overthrown Congress, and deep red California had stripped immigrant families of their right to access education, health care and critical social services.

Prop 187 was sold as the key to financial relief for upstanding, tax-paying citizens who felt they didn’t deserve to feel the pinch of California’s slumping economy. To Latino working families across the state, it was a betrayal of the highest order.

For generations, immigrant communities like ours had been paying the price for American freedom. Noncitizens had fought alongside natural-born citizens in almost every major war. Our farmworkers helped feed an entire nation. Our mothers raised rich babies “on the other side of town.” Our chefs cooked world-class meals for celebrities and billionaires. Our fathers kept country club lawns perfectly manicured.


It was clear that no one would speak for us. We had to stand up and speak for ourselves. So, 500 miles from the governor’s mansion, we met in Boyle Heights, at Cinco Puntos. We organized. Tens of thousands of families – mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children alike who stood to lose everything in this world to the passage of Prop 187 – came out and marched with us in unison.

For my peers and me, this was our political awakening. What was intended to strangle and starve an entire community turned out to be the inflection point for a generation of Latino leaders – and even turned the state blue.

I can say this without any hesitation: If it were not for Prop 187, most of us would never have thought about running for office. It just wasn’t in our blood – or so we thought. Fabian Nunez, who had never been a candidate in his life, ran for office and became speaker of the California State Assembly. Gil Cedillo, also a first-time candidate, rose through the Assembly and the Senate.

And I, the son of a single, immigrant mother, was elected in 2006 to the State Assembly. Eight years later, I became the first Latino to lead the California Senate in more than 133 years. Three months after that, I passed Senate Bill 396, tearing the last remnants of Prop 187 from our legal code.

In fact, I was still Senate Leader when Donald Trump was elected using the same cynical playbook Gov. Wilson used to pass Prop 187. It was as clear to me on Nov. 8, 2016, as it was in 1994: California must continue to be a beacon of hope and opportunity in an uncertain world.

Today, California is one of the most inclusive states in the world. We passed the nation’s first “sanctuary state” law, refusing to become a cog in Trump’s deportation machine. We extended driver’s licenses to noncitizens and we offered health insurance to their children.

Kevin de León

Trump’s policy of separating families at the border, hunting down and deporting innocent parents, and locking kids in cages will be a short, dark chapter in our nation’s history. The Republican Party may feel satisfied with the short-term victories they’ve won by vilifying immigrants, but they only have to look at California to know their fate.

California always leads: on the good, the bad and even the reprehensible. Just as 1994 ushered in a wave of anti-immigrant policies – Senate Bill 1050 in Arizona, and recently Senate Bill 4 in Texas – and paved the way for Donald Trump, it inspired a new generation of leaders who would go on to create historic protections for immigrant families.

While Prop 187 robbed so many of their dignity, we took what we needed from it as well. I took from it my voice and my purpose. That’s why now, 25 years later, that moment in our history is defined not by hateful rhetoric, but by our triumph over it.

Kevin de León, president pro tempore emeritus of the California state Senate, helped organize and lead one of the largest marches in California history against Proposition 187.
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