Friday, November 8, 2019

25 Years After The Passage of California's Proposition 187: The Beginning of the Political Transformation of California


1994:  California Governor Pete Wilson's television advertisement for Proposition 187


2019:  Message to Governor Pete Wilson from California's Latino Caucus

Although many today consider California to be a pro-immigrant haven, the state has a long history of anti-immigrant outbursts.  Attacks, violent as well as legal, on Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s and mass deportation of persons of Mexican ancestry during the Great Depression, both commanded widespread popular support among Californians. These two well-known historical examples of intolerance are blemishes on the state’s proud history.

Contrary to popular belief, not all of the anti-immigrant outbursts are ancient history.  On November 8, 1994 -- 25 years ago today, California voters by a landslide 2-1 vote, polarized along racial lines, passed Proposition 18763% of non-Hispanic white voters and 23% of Latino voters voted for the initiative. Although non-Hispanic whites comprised 57% of California's population at the time, they comprised 81% of voters in the 1994 general election. Latinos totaled 8% of voters, although they comprised 26% of the state's population.

Proposition 187, among other things, would have

(1)   denied undocumented immigrants access to virtually all public benefits as well as a public education;

(2)   required police, school administrators, and other state employees to verify the immigration status of persons with whom they come into contact in their official capacities; and

(3)   mandated that state and local employees to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, a precursor to many 21st century “anti-sanctuary” laws later passed by a number of states. 

Proposition 187 no doubt jars contemporary understandings of California’s liberal politics.  But the story is even more intriguing and politically far-reaching.  In a rancorous, racially-charged campaign, Republican Governor Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187, which served as the springboard for his successful re-election bid.  “[H]is reelection apparently doomed, Wilson seized on [Proposition 187] and, through a racist campaign, tapped the latent bigotry of Californians to rescue his flailing candidacy, a pyrrhic victory that badly damaged Republicans by alienating Latinos in the state and nationwide ever since.”  

The lopsided passage of the initiative “sent a message” well beyond California about popular public concern with immigration.  Receiving the message loud and clear, Congress passed three major pieces of legislation in 1996, all of which adversely impacted immigrants.  First, Congress passed welfare reform, which achieved most of its cost savings by stripping legal immigrants of public benefits.  Congress then passed back-to-back immigration enforcement laws, perhaps the toughest such laws enacted in U.S. history.

With Proposition 187, the Golden State became one of the early states in contemporary times to pass a law that sought to ramp up enforcement of federal immigration laws.  During the Obama administration, similar state laws spread like wildfire in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and several other states, which for the most part had experienced an increase in Latinx immigration.  Finding that the laws interfered with the federal power to regulate immigration, a federal court enjoined most of the California initiative, as well as the copy-cats, from going into effect.  Nonetheless, widespread popular support for the laws unquestionably demonstrated deep popular dissatisfaction with current levels of immigration and the enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws.

As it turned out, the long-term effects of Proposition 187 reached beyond immigration but, ultimately reshaped all of California politics.  Even though the law was never fully implemented, the reverberations of the initiative contributed to the slow but steady – and in the end, dramatic – political transformation of California.  In the aftermath of the initiative’s passage, Latinx immigrants in record numbers naturalized and became U.S. citizens; due to the perception of the Republican party as anti-immigrant and anti-minority in no small part due to its support for Proposition 187, new Latinx citizens became new Democratic voters; and the state legislature and statewide political leaders became more Democratic and increasingly racially diverse. 

When all was said and done, California experienced nothing less than what political scientists would characterize as a political realignment.  A Republican stronghold became a Democratic bastion.  Today, the Democratic party dominates California politics and controls both the legislature and state house; not coincidentally, the legislature consistently passes laws that protect, not punish, immigrants.  Today, one cannot imagine California voters passing anything like Proposition 187.

The end result of the political transformation of California was that the same state that enacted Proposition 187 now passes laws to protect and defend undocumented immigrants, including making them eligible for driver’s licenses and improving their access to higher education.  The legislature ultimately went so far as to declare California to be a “sanctuary” for immigrants.  Oddly enough, Proposition 187 contributed significantly to the amazing reversal of political fortune in the state for immigrants as well as for Democrats.

The wholesale transformation of the political terrain of California from a state with an electorate that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 187 to one that protects immigrants from federal immigration enforcement – or, put differently, from an anti-sanctuary to a sanctuary jurisdiction – is now complete.  In response to President Trump’s hyper-aggressive immigration enforcement measures, California has passed laws to restrict state and local involvement in federal immigration enforcement.  The state also defiantly filed a series of lawsuits attempting to block implementation of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement and other policies.

In essence, Proposition 187 set in motion a chain reaction that forever changed California politics.  That history poses an important – and seemingly incongruous – series of questions for the future of U.S. politics: 

1.    Will the aggressive enforcement measures of the Trump administration have political ramifications for the entire nation similar to those that Proposition 187 had on California?

2.    More specifically, might the responses to President Trump’s immigration policies lead to a political transformation on a national scale that ultimately benefits immigrants similar to that which occurred in California? 

Ironically enough, the actions of President Trump, like those of California Governor Pete Wilson, in the end might have completely unexpected collateral consequences.  The administration’s harsh immigration policies in fact may pave the way for a much more immigrant-friendly national political climate.  Such political change holds the promise of facilitating the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, which has been proposed for many years but is yet to be passed by Congress.  That change might also spur the passage of other legislation protecting immigrants.


The political change in California over the past twenty-five years makes Proposition 187 a distant memory.  Politically, 1994 California is very different from the 2019 California.  Instead of facilitating immigration enforcement, Proposition 187 ultimately became a catalyst for changes that have transformed the Golden State’s politics.  The Latinx community felt threatened by the racist attacks present in the Proposition 187 campaign, and in response, mobilized, naturalized, and voted; new leaders were elected to positions of political power, where they could champion fervently pro-immigrant laws.  

The Trump administration’s unforgiving immigration enforcement policies could be a catalyst for a nationwide political transformation similar to that which occurred in California after the 1994 election.

The lessons of California’s Proposition 187 thus offer an optimistic pro-immigrant prognosis for the long-term impacts of the aggressive immigration enforcement approach embraced by the Trump administration.  As in California, increased political activism focused on the injustice of the nation’s immigration policies is evident on a national scale. The human impacts of mass detention of migrants, immigration raids, and other tough immigration measures have been on the nightly news for years.  Naturalization rates are on the rise.  New Latinx voters are being mobilized.   Time will tell see what the long-term effects are of President Trump’s immigration enforcement revolution.


Additional Sources

This is California:  The Battle of 187, a podcast

Kevin R. Johnson, An Essay on Immigration Politics, Popular Democracy, and California's Proposition 187: The Political Relevance and Legal Irrelevance of Race, 70 Washington Law Review 629 (1995)

Kevin R. Johnson, Public Benefits and Immigration: The Intersection of Immigration Status, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class, 42 UCLA Law Review 1509 (1995).

Marissa Cabrera & Maureen Cavanaugh, KBPS (San Diego Public Radio), How Proposition 187 Transformed California, Nov. 4, 2019



UC Davis Law Review Symposium on the 25th Anniversary of Proposition 187, UC Davis School of Law, Nov. 13-14, 2019.  I will expand on the thoughts expressed in this blog post in my contribution to the symposium issue of the UC Davis Law Review.  The article is tentatively entitled "Proposition 187 and Its Political Aftermath:  Optimistic Lessons for U.S. Immigration Politics After Trump."


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