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A Look At The Lasting Political Ramifications Of California's Prop 187


It was a proposal to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services like health care or education. We're talking not about the latest policy from the Trump administration, but a ballot initiative that was approved in California 25 years ago today. It was called Prop 187. Proponents of the measure made the argument that it was necessary to help the state's economic woes. But, of course, not everyone agreed. It was a measure that has had lasting political ramifications.

LA Times reporter Gustavo Arellano has been chronicling the saga of Prop 187 for the podcast Latino USA. Welcome.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Gracias for having me.

CHANG: So what's interesting about this whole story of Prop 187 is that California today is a sanctuary state, of course. But it would have been really hard to see it be anything like a sanctuary state back in 1994. Can you just tell us why Prop 187 was so popular back then?

ARELLANO: Yeah, we have to go back 25 years. So immigration has been coming to California in unprecedented numbers, this time from Latin America and Asia. So a lot of people are upset with the cultural shifts. And at the same time, we're going through our worst recession since the Great Depression. Middle-class voters, they need a scapegoat, and so they find it with people who don't look like them, who speak a different language and more importantly, whose children are starting to go to these schools. Whether they were legal or not really wasn't the question. It was really, hey, we have a scapegoat. Let's try something.

CHANG: But Prop 187 became kind of a galvanizing moment for a lot of Latinx activists. I want to play something from one of your episodes. This is from Gerardo Correa. He was just a teenager at the time. And he remembers reacting to a slogan that Prop 187 advocates kept using, save our state.


GERARDO CORREA: Save our state from what? From me? (Laughter) I'm a threat to you? Like, I'm a law-abiding citizen. I'm going to try to school. I'm trying to better myself. Like, how am I the threat?

CHANG: And what Correa says in this episode is he wasn't political at all before Prop 187, but the whole campaign against it made him start caring about politics. Did you find that that was a common story talking to people?

ARELLANO: It is the story of my generation of Latinos, like Gen X and maybe a little bit younger, a little bit older. Literally we were - I was a sophomore in high school in 1994. I was just your typical - I thought typical American...

CHANG: I was a senior (laughter).

ARELLANO: Yeah. Hey, we're not too far apart. You know, I liked baseball. I liked, you know, "In Living Color" back in the day. And all of a sudden, people start attacking immigrants. And it was personal for me and for all of us because my dad came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy.


ARELLANO: He ended up becoming an American citizen. We - I thought, you know, we had the three bedroom, two bath, swimming pool American dream. And now all of a sudden, we're the cause of California. So we would've been completely assimilated if not for this. We saw this as an existential threat, so a lot of people went into politics, went into advocacy. I became a reporter because of 187.

CHANG: It's so interesting. You were, like you said, you were just a sophomore. But I remember reading that while your classmates were protesting and walking out of school because of Prop 187, you decided not to. Tell me why you decided not to.

ARELLANO: Honestly, I was scared. I was scared.

CHANG: Scared of what?

ARELLANO: I just - I've never done something like this. My parents are still immigrants. I'm afraid that the police is going to round me up. They're going to go after my parents. And I also thought that it would do nothing, that walking out - what could us kids do to try to stop this 187? How is that going to stop people from hating us? And by the way, I talk about it in my podcast, I was maybe one of five students left in fifth period history class.

CHANG: In that classroom.

ARELLANO: And we're all looking at each other saying, we made a mistake.

CHANG: Did it feel a little bit shameful to be sitting there?

ARELLANO: I was embarrassed for years afterwards. And I got so ashamed of that that I said, you know what? I'm never going to care about politics ever again. I was against 187, of course, because my dad was undocumented.

CHANG: Yeah.

ARELLANO: I'm just going to, you know, become successful and buy a house in a gated community and never have to think about it again. But it came back to me.

CHANG: Little did you know. Now Prop 187, it ended up getting challenged in the courts. It was dead by 1999. You argue, though, that it still has a profound lasting impact on American politics. Tell me when - when you were listening today to the debate over immigration, what feels incredibly familiar to you about it?

ARELLANO: The template - demonizing undocumented people, creating legislation that's going to target them and specifically going after the children and politicians using this to win. So in 1994, it's not just a story of 187, it's also the story of former California governor Pete Wilson, who was running behind in his reelection campaign, saw that illegal immigration was an issue that he could win on, and he won it. Exactly with President Trump. You know, in his very first speech, remember, he said, people coming across the border were rapists, were drug smugglers. And some of them, I think, are good people.

CHANG: Right.

ARELLANO: That's exactly the rhetoric...

CHANG: Back in June 2015.

ARELLANO: And more - and I cannot overemphasize how much 187 - yes, it inspired a generation of Latinx activists, but also inspired a new generation of immigration restrictionists. SB 1070 comes from this from Arizona, legislation in Pennsylvania, in Oklahoma. The main immigrant control group, Federation for American Immigration Reform, I interviewed the president, Dan Stein, and he said, yeah, with 187, we learned what to do and what not to do.

CHANG: Gustavo Arellano reports for The LA Times.

Thank you very much for coming into the studio today.

ARELLANO: Gracias for having me.