For the last quarter century, Democratic politicians in California have operated under the maxim that the more laws enacted to protect people in this country without legal status, the better.
Legislators in Sacramento passed bills that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, pay in-state tuition at public universities and receive Medi-Cal. They declared California a “sanctuary state,” prohibiting local law enforcement from assisting federal immigration agents. School districts have approved extending voting rights to parents without papers. Cities and counties have contributed municipal funds to help residents caught up in deportation proceedings.
This is the legacy of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure overwhelmingly passed by California voters that sought to make life miserable for undocumented immigrants. It never went into effect because a federal judge declared it unconstitutional — but it forever changed the Golden State and demonstrated the political power of Latinos.
Proposition 187 was so hated by Latinos that an L.A. Times exit poll showed only 23% of us voted for it, compared with 63% of whites. Those of us who came of age during that time swore off the Republican Party and doubled down on creating a kinder state. We helped transform California from politically purple to bluer than Lake Tahoe. We taught activists in other states how to fight the GOP anti-immigrant template that spread across the country and went all the way to the Trump White House.
Academics, activists and politicos still cite Proposition 187 as a cautionary tale for underestimating Latino power. But there’s a risk in transposing the past to the present. That’s why Democrats should worry about polls showing that in California, Latino support for undocumented immigrants and measures to help them has steadily eroded over the last two decades.
As far back as 2001, a Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that the gap between whites and Latinos on whether illegal immigration was a “problem” was nearly half the gap between the groups on Proposition 187. In 2012, an L.A. Times poll asking whether Californians would support the return of Proposition 187 found that a third of Latinos said yes — just 18 percentage points fewer than whites. In a 2019 Public Policy Institute of California survey, 75% of Latinos thought illegal border crossings, at a time of much-publicized migrant caravans, were either a “crisis” or a “serious problem” — more than the 70% of whites who felt the same way.
And the shift continues. A December survey by UnidosUS, formerly known as National Council of La Raza, of more than 3,000 Latinos in eight states showed that California Latinos were more open to “increasing border security” than Latinos in Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. We tied with Florida for last place in wanting the government to provide a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. Of all the states, we least wanted to increase legal immigration or allow an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Asked in the UnidosUS poll to rank their top three issues, California Latinos rated immigration sixth, behind cost of living, lack of affordable housing and crime.
Last month, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll on border security, co-sponsored by The Times, found that 63% of Latinos in California consider undocumented immigrants to be a “burden,” compared with 79% of whites. On the nation’s asylum laws, 33% of Latinos described them as too lenient, compared with 39% of whites. Latinos were slightly more likely than whites to say that tighter laws would be “effective” in reducing the number of migrants claiming asylum. On nearly every question, there was little gap between Latinos who are English-dominant and Latinos who prefer Spanish — a stand-in of sorts for the native-born and immigrants.
In this 30th anniversary year, as Californians reflect on the legacy of Proposition 187, it’s important to pay attention to these polls. Arrests for unauthorized crossings from Mexico reached an all-time high in December. Even President Biden is vowing to shut down the border instead of rolling out the proverbial welcome mat. That Latinos in California — whose growth was mostly due to immigration, legal and not — are becoming almost as skeptical of unchecked illegal immigration as their white neighbors is a sad, if inevitable milestone.
This won’t automatically translate into more Latinos voting Republican. It does mean that California’s open-borders era is beginning to wind down. Last month, the UC Board of Regents declined to move forward with a long-promised policy to hire undocumented students without work permits. Over boos and cries of “cowards,” the regents heeded the advice of President Michael V. Drake, who warned of the legal risks.
That might not have been the outcome when Donald Trump was in power, when the lords of California tripped over themselves to challenge his administration over anything involving illegal immigration.
This hardening by Latinos doesn’t surprise me one bit. In a state where an estimated 83% of Latinos are of Mexican heritage, according to census data analyzed by UCLA’s Latino Politics and Policy Institute, the changing faces of illegal immigration are drawing less and less empathy. I’ve seen this within my own family.
When the undocumented immigrants were my uncles and aunts, we hailed them as heroes. They told stories of facing off against la migra, as if they were in a Benny Hill skit. To this day, decades after becoming a U.S. citizen, my dad proudly calls himself a mojado — a wetback. But when the Mexicans started coming from southern states with larger Indigenous populations, my relatives saw them as shiftless flojos — lazy people — who weren’t like our Mexicans.
When tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors entered this country in the last decade or so, sympathy for them among my family members went hand in hand with grumblings about who would have to take care of them. Now, Venezuelan migrants are on everyone’s mind. At a recent family party, a distant cousin who came to this country without papers as a young man railed about Venezuelans supposedly getting free food and lodging in New York with all the xenophobic bloviating of a Fox News host.
He said this even as the community center that hosted our party made us close the doors because the tubas and trombones of the banda sinaloense were too loud.
Since the battle over Proposition 187, Latinos have considered ourselves the moral conscience of California. We still exhibit flashes of kindness toward undocumented immigrants, of course — especially the political class, so many of whom came of age in an era of bigotry. Advocates continue to demonize white people who oppose illegal immigration as uncaring racists.
But one day — sooner, rather than later — Latinos will be indistinguishable from them on this question that has split us apart for so long.
And then what?