Learning from Proposition 187

California’s Past Is Arizona’s Prologue

Arizona’s new extreme immigration law hearkens back to California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which triggered political backlash in the state, writes Gebe Martinez.

Pro- and anti-Proposition 187 activists are separated by a police line during a rally outside the Federal Building in the Westwood section of Los Angeles on August 10, 1996. (AP/Frank Wiese)
Pro- and anti-Proposition 187 activists are separated by a police line during a rally outside the Federal Building in the Westwood section of Los Angeles on August 10, 1996. (AP/Frank Wiese)

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger settled into Jay Leno’s guest chair last week on “The Tonight Show” and declared that Arizona’s harsh new immigration law, which relies on racial profiling, “is a huge mess.” He quickly emphasized, “I, as governor here, I would never do that in California…No way.”

Schwarzenegger’s swagger, however, does not mean that California has come up with a better way to control illegal immigration, or that its citizens are not frustrated by the federal government’s broken immigration system and frightened by reports of illegal drug-trafficking and violence across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rather, he knows the political and economic harm that can come to a state when immigrant bashing goes to the extreme and the public discussion turns hyperbolic.

Arizona’s recent enactment of a law that lets police demand proof of citizenship upon a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” is eerily similar to California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which would have banned most public services to undocumented immigrants had the courts not stepped in and blocked it on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution.

And just as Arizona’s political leadership firmly stands by its decision, then-California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was proud of the public’s approval of the 1994 plan to cut off benefits to undocumented immigrants. But the backlash to Proposition 187, delivered at the hands of a growing Latino electorate, was severe and long lasting, with the Republican Party suffering the most blame and punishment.

Schwarzenegger, the first Republican to win a state election since Proposition 187, therefore understands that it is Congress’s duty to restore immigration law by reforming the system—not California’s or Arizona’s or any other state’s. California’s experience with Proposition 187 helps show just how destructive such policies can be.

Proposition 187

California was mired in an economic recession in 1994, though it was not as severe as the current downturn that has gripped the entire country. The 1990 U.S. Census also showed an explosion in the state’s Latino population, up to 26 percent from 19 percent a decade earlier, and the change came too fast for some to absorb.

Proponents of the "Save Our State" petition—Proposition 187—blamed illegal immigrants for the poor economy and crime, for draining state and federal tax dollars and services, and for committing injustices against citizens. The petition effectively blurred the lines between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants; proposed ending education, nonemergency health care, and other public services for undocumented immigrants; and required police and government workers to report suspected undocumented immigrants.

The petition drive was started by an unemployed accountant who claimed he had been bilked out of $500,000 by an illegal immigrant who, by the way, might not have been in the United States in the first place if the federal government had better control of the borders. The accountant’s claim was false according to federal bankruptcy records, which showed he actually lost $70,000 in a shaky business deal with a former friend, a Canadian, who was not an illegal immigrant but a permanent legal U.S. resident.

The accountant’s campaign partner was a former government worker who, in her words, “went ballistic,” when she found a crowded lobby at a social service agency with only one customer service window for English speakers that was closed, while the multilingual windows that handled English and also Spanish and Vietnamese-speaking clients were open.

Proposition leaders blamed immigrants for the “stench of urination, defecation, narcotics, savagery and death” during a campaign strongly backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Californians approved the measure by 59 percent to 41 percent—and re-elected Wilson—although Latino voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum, 73 percent to 27 percent.

A federal judge eventually found the ballot referendum unconstitutional because it conflicted with federal immigration authority, though that has not stopped more conservative states and cities from passing immigration control laws.

The political price

The hard political fact is that after 1994, California Democrats won every presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial election until 2003, when a state electricity crisis led to a recall election that ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and brought in Schwarzenegger. This string of victories for the last 16 years (Schwarzenegger excepted) was no doubt due to Wilson’s backing of Proposition 187 and the long-lasting backlash it created against Republicans in the state.

The post-Proposition 187 era has witnessed an energized and ever-growing Latino voter turnout, not just in California but also in key electoral states where Latino voters can determine the outcome. It’s important to note, too, that Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted, and Republicans can win the White House with 40 percent of the Latino vote, as President George W. Bush proved to the GOP. If, for example, President Barack Obama does not deliver on his promise to enact comprehensive immigration reform, he runs the risk of alienating Latino voters in states that helped him redraw the electoral map.

Indeed, the Latino voter profile in recent elections suggests that even if immigration is not the top issue facing voters, a candidate’s position—and the level of immigrant bashing—distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys on the ballot. A survey of Latino voters in May 2009 by Bendixen & Associates showed 82 percent stating that the immigration issue is important to them and their families, and 69 percent said that they personally know someone who is undocumented.

Schwarzenegger, who is limited to two terms in office and cannot seek re-election, improved his standing with Latino voters by being tough but fair and practical on immigration. He opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and favors strong border security, but he signed a bill that prohibits the state’s cities from requiring landlords to check whether their tenants are in the United States without proper documents—a tactic similar to what was tried in Hazleton, Pennsylvania and was ruled unconstitutional.

Raising Arizona

Now comes Arizona with S.B. 1070, the most draconian immigration law since Proposition 187. It targets not the public benefits but the immigrants themselves, by demanding proof of citizenship if a police officer asks for it. The Arizona law, which was revised to silence the criticism that it relies on racial profiling, still begs the question: Can anyone tell the difference between a citizen and an undocumented person based on looks?

As in California, hyperbole preceded Arizona’s action, though the incident was far more tragic. A friendly, well-known rancher on the Arizona border with Mexico was killed, and public speculation mounted that a band of undocumented immigrants fired the shots. Demands for tighter border security against illegal immigrants and drug traffickers emboldened the Republican-led state legislature’s drive to enact the new law. But investigators are now zeroing in on a U.S. citizen as the attacker.

Fear and frustration run deep in the Grand Canyon state, which has more illegal border crossings than any other state, just as California did when Proposition 187 passed. In Arizona, the vitriol against immigration—legal and illegal—is punctuated by the increased drug and human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal statistics at the end of 2009, however, showed a drop in violent crimes in major U.S. cities along the border.

The statistics notwithstanding, Arizona politicians pander to the public’s fears, so much so that Republican Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a former backer of comprehensive immigration reform, has become a hardliner as he battles for his political life in the GOP primary against former Congressman J.D. Hayworth.

If California’s past is Arizona’s prologue, there are two lessons still to be learned in Arizona. First, federal courts have ruled that only the federal government—not states—has the power to pass immigration laws and enforcement measures. And second, a political backlash will come in a state where 15 percent of the electorate is Latino and growing. Already, cities and national organizations across the country have denounced the new Arizona law and embraced economic boycotts.

Arizonans have a right to be frustrated by the broken immigration system. But their elected leaders also have a responsibility to minimize the hyperbole and maximize the pressure on Washington, where the solutions lie. Congress must pass a comprehensive immigration program that is enforceable and that targets the criminals, not the immigrants who have built this country.

As Schwarzenegger, a multimillionaire in the entertainment industry and an immigrant himself, told Leno last week, “Without America I never would have had the career that I have.”

Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at American Progress.

More on Arizona’s immigration law from CAP:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.