This week marks the 20th anniversary of  Proposition 187, a ballot measure that left a profound mark on California politics.

It was a kind of citizens’ revolt in 1994 over illegal immigration, and it passed overwhelmingly with 59 percent of the vote.

To understand why Prop. 187 struck such a chord 20 years ago, you have to know what was happening in California back then. There was a sense across the country that our borders were simply out of control. It was captured in a television ad, now infamous, used by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in his re-election campaign that year.

“They keep coming,” intoned the ominous voice on the commercial. “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.”

Its provocative images of people streaming in from Mexico illegally helped propel Wilson to a re-election landslide. But it came at a cost to the Republican Party in California.

Earlier this month I visited the border crossing featured in that commercial.

“This is right in the middle of what used to be ground zero in terms of illegal immigration,” says Pete Nunez.  Pointing toward the south and east, he notes, “Most of what you see today wasn’t here 20 years ago because it was overrun by illegal immigrants. There was no fence, there were no lights. There were no cameras. So it really served as a focal point of what was wrong with immigration policy.”

Nunez was U.S. attorney for San Diego under President Ronald Reagan and one of the chief proponents of Prop. 187.

“In the narrowest sense, we wanted to implement at the state level some measures that would make it more difficult for illegal aliens to survive in the state,” Nunez says. He mentions a study at the time showing how much money illegal immigration cost California.

“It was in the billions of dollars and it covered everything from public schooling, medical costs, jail costs, welfare costs — all kinds of costs that would be passed down to the taxpayer.”

Prop. 187 called for preventing undocumented immigrants from getting any public benefits, including health care and education. It required school districts to verify the immigration status of all students — and their parents.

The issue had such resonance with voters that Democrats up for re-election, like U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were also talking tough on border security.

On election night, Prop. 187 won with 59 percent of the vote. And Stanford political science professor Gary Segura notes it was a good night for Republicans.

“In 1994 we re-elected a Republican governor, Republicans controlled the lower house of the state Legislature, the Senate was relatively closely divided and the congressional delegation in the House of Representatives was exactly half Republican and half Democrat.”

Segura says that before 1994, Latinos were trending toward the Republican Party. Prop. 187, he says, changed everything.

“After 1994 and up through 2000, approximately 1.1 million people registered to vote in the state of California” Segura notes. “One million of the 1.1 million were self-identified Hispanics or Latinos.”

Their clout has helped Democrats capture every statewide office from governor on down, while giving  Democrats two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Some California Republicans insist there are no lingering effects of Prop. 187 for the GOP today. One high-ranking Republican official in California called anyone who would say that an “ostrich.” He believes Prop. 187 “radicalized” Latinos and other immigrants. “Before 1994, legal Mexican immigrants were among the least likely to become citizens,” he said.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz was one of the few Republicans who spoke out against Prop. 187. He says that 20 years ago most eligible immigrants didn’t even bother registering to vote.

“For decades the immigrant population had been growing,” Unz says, “while immigrants just hadn’t been politically involved, they hadn’t felt it wasn’t necessary for them to take part in politics.”

That, he adds, allowed them to be politically scapegoated by 187.

Like many Latinos from immigrant families at that time, Lorena Gonzalez decided to get involved. She was a grad student as the 187 campaign heated up. The daughter of a farmworker from Mexico, Gonzalez says her mother pushed her toward public service.

“She said, ‘There are a number of things you can do. You can become an attorney, you could represent immigrants, you could go into politics, you could do any of these things to really change the way [California] looks,’ ” Gonzalez remembers.

Today Gonzalez represents the 80th Assembly District in San Diego. Standing in Chicano Park in the working-class Barrio Logan neighborhood, she marvels at how much politics have changed since Prop. 187.

“The best we could hope for, for a while there, was just to stop it and now have completely reversed it and welcomed all immigrants into our community and said we need to do something about this,” Gonzalez says.

At the urging of her and nearly two dozen other Latinos in the state Legislature, California has enacted legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and get college loans.

And earlier this month, the state Senate elected its first Latino president pro tem, state Sen. Kevin de León, from Los Angeles. De León grew up in the San Diego neighborhood now represented by Lorena Gonzalez.

His path to his current post began as a young political organizer against Prop. 187. And that experience clearly influences his thinking today.

“Every kid, regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what language they speak or where their parents are from or where they were born or their immigration status, deserves a fair shot to make it here ,” said de León at his splashy inauguration at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Prop. 187 never took effect in California. It was ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts. But earlier this year de León authored legislation officially wiping the law’s wording off the books. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it.

But the issue of illegal immigration still sparks strong feelings.

This summer, demonstrators protested the large number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally from Central America. Angry crowds in Murrieta, just north of San Diego County, shouted”U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!” and blocked a government bus with undocumented women and children heading to a Border Patrol station.

And in Washington, Republicans in the House of Representatives have blocked comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

Stanford political science professor Gary Segura says the national GOP continues to alienate Latino voters.

“What happened here 20 years ago in many ways is a prologue for what’s happening nationwide, so it’s a really interesting path,” Segura says.  “It’s interesting to find people not learn from their mistakes.”

But at least two Republican Congress members in the Central Valley have changed course. David Valadao and Jeff Denham both represent districts with large numbers of Latinos. Both have also endorsed a path to citizenship. And Amanda Renteria, a Latina Democrat challenging Valadao, this election is having a hard time energizing Latino voters to cast ballots — in part because there’s nothing like Prop. 187 driving them to vote.

Political Effects Linger 20 Years After Prop. 187 Targeted Illegal Immigration 4 November,2014Scott Shafer

  • Dave Francis



    success in Midterms is to reconcile Round One in the Conservative “Civil
    War” and should therefore be heartily deserving of Congratulations. The Oval
    office minions left the U.S. Constitution in tatters and on
    life-support. “We the People” declined Obama’s imperialist disorder and
    constitutional lawbreaking. But now constitutional conservatives, the Tea Party
    must hold the Republicans Establishment to the agenda that they have promised,
    after to being reseated in the Senate. Woe is them if they fail to get this
    derailed nation, back on its tracks.

    Tea Party
    Patriots put it frankly: “You’re welcome, GOP. Now you must keep your promises.”
    Tea Party Conservative have warned: “The
    GOP owes its victory to its foundation and now breaking any promises now will
    put their majority if they expect any chance for the presidency in ‘2016 in danger.”
    We don’t need any kind of Obama’s
    Socialist ideas, which is in the gray area of Communism—when his ideology is to
    force Americans more dependant on government than their own abilities? The
    majority who vote for him and his extreme philosophies are the people who
    demand freebies, such as food stamps and living off the rest of us.

    First the
    new Congress must cut the ‘purse strings’ for all costs to any new Executive
    Order, especially for another amnesty. WE

    The new
    Congress must seal the border, revitalizing former President Bush 2006 Secure
    Fence Act and build a stronger border force of agents, plus more eternal
    network of ICE personal to chase down employers hiring illegal aliens. This is
    essential no matter the massive cost for the next 2 years for sure and probably
    into the future. The cost of building double layer fencing along the Southwestern
    far outweighs the merciless expense of paying hundreds of billions for welfare
    programs for financially supporting illegal alien. Annually American taxpayers
    get clobbered for paying extraordinary amounts for ‘Anchor Babies’ as they are
    called and the families. Nor should the 40 percent of ‘Overstay’ tourists who
    come on limited visas and never go back be welcome? Its not just the border
    region, but foreign nationals who slip through the ICE policy cracks and we pay
    for it, because their is no real deterrent at entry and exit ports, We need
    mandatory control of entry into the United States and President Obama’s
    lethargic laws are not meant to stop anybody.

    numbers of disease-infested illegal aliens are hemorrhaging our southern
    borders with Obama spurring them on. In a sudden event different viruses are
    prevalent around the country, showing up in areas where Obama’s mob secretly
    dumped thousands of minors in schools around the country. One such disease
    spread like wildfire across the country, attacking children with paralysis and
    also death. What no administration will tell you is the impact of the 1 million
    of more, which come legally. A large part of it is ‘chain migration’ that
    invites parts of families sponsored by a relative already here. Supposedly the
    original sponsor must financially support them, but it is a weak law and that
    people who arrive fall upon welfare again.

    Be honest
    with you–that I do not even trust the Republican establishment, as they like
    the Democrats are backed by Special interests, when the major issue is illegal
    immigration. In the spotlight are the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of big
    business for cheap labor and to lower wages. If Obama passes some form of general amnesty, it’s
    going to be more heavy taxes for all Americans.

    In California we have a real nutcase selling his
    soul to stay Governor, Jerry Brown indicating that his state is a sanctuary for
    illegal aliens. Yet this idiot is crowing about shortage of water. Already California has huge urban sprawl, which are
    forever growing, jammed highways and an eroding infrastructure.

    huge gains in the midterm elections, we have some potent work to do. The task
    at hand is huge. It can’t wait?

    Rolling back Obama’s objective of Ultra-Socialist government has not failed yet,
    the Conservatives forging full steam ahead is going to be a monstrous
    undertaking. There are the ugly facts of the Benghazi massacre, Fast and
    Furious gun running, spying by the IRS and an out of control Environmental
    Protection Agency (EPA). Secondary to dismantling is a 2nd Amnesty
    is reducing the size of Government. Did you know that Washington DC has very little
    unemployment other than the rest of the country?

    we need from the new Congress, which will be minus that obnoxious Senator Harry
    Reid is shrinking all government agencies and returning them to state
    management, such as the Dept of Education. An Environmental Protection Agency
    (EPA) no longer controlled by Obamas zealots who tried to erase the coal
    industry, and minimize drilling for oil and natural gas. It’s time to promote
    more exploration of ‘The Peoples Land’ for our abundant resources. American
    public should demand the expedited advancement of the XL Keystone Pipeline? We
    need less energy dependence on foreign nations and more in self-reliance? A
    reduction in the menacing size of the federal deficit, that is increasingly out
    of control. We need a flat tax or consumption tax and dismantling the inept
    IRS. No more pandering to foreign nationals with lax food stamp laws, and any
    of Obamas executive directives should be rescinded or re-assessed. Our military
    needs to be rebuilt, to strengthen America and protect us from
    domestic and foreign enemies. Dig out the all the House bills that Sen. Harry
    Reid squirreled away, to halt them from reaching the Senate to vote upon.

    And about ‘Obamacare’
    that is the Affordable Care Act–which is not affordable, when I just learned
    from the TV that penalty for not having insurance, is going to go up
    continuously annually.

  • tmitch2

    Is this Lorena chick serious??? Look how California looks now. And she’s PROUD of letting everyone and their grandmother in??? See this is the delusional low IQ we try to keep out. It’s best to only allow the best to migrate here or you get this crap.


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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