Black-and-white video footage of people crossing a border flashes on the television screen, painting immigrants as dangerous intruders. Am I in 2016 watching a Donald Trump ad, or back in California in 1994 watching Gov. Pete Wilson’s now-infamous ad about denying services to undocumented people? It’s hard to tell. Donald Trump has taken a page out of Wilson’s misguided anti-immigrant playbook, down to the same video imagery. With this month marking the one year anniversary of when Donald Trump first launched his presidential campaign, the fight around Proposition 187 – the anti-immigrant measure Wilson campaigned on in the 1990s – serves as an important reminder of what we need to do to successfully keep Donald Trump out of the White House and combat the GOP’s vicious attacks on immigrants today.
The Prop 187 story is now well-known: Governor Pete Wilson’s decision to fuel his re-election campaign with fear and scapegoating ultimately backfired spectacularly. He campaigned and won re-election on a horrific ballot measure that denied basic services like education and health care to undocumented immigrants. While the measure, which passed, was ultimately struck down in the courts, the state GOP’s push for its enactment sparked a transformation of the political landscape. Republican registration in the state nosedived as political participation among the growing Latino population boomed. Immigrants became citizens and voted in record numbers against the Republican Party.
The California GOP had branded itself as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, and it never recovered. From the 1950s until the beginning of the 1990s, California had been a Republican stronghold, supporting the GOP presidential candidate in every election but one. After this shift, California became the reliably blue state it continues to be today. Researchers call it the “ Prop 187 effect.”
But nationally Republicans don’t seem to have learned their lesson. With Trump at the helm, the national Republican party appears to be speeding towards its own Prop 187 moment this election cycle. While Pete Wilson wanted to block undocumented people from accessing social services, Trump wants to go even further: deploying a “ deportation force” to kick millions of people out of the country, separating parents from children and uprooting communities. Wilson’s campaign framed immigrants as trespassers; Trump says that Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. And just as the GOP alienated Latino voters in California in the 1990s, Trump’s horrific rhetoric and proposed policies are alienating Latino voters nationwide.
But it’s important to remember that the “Prop 187 effect” didn’t just happen. At the time, organizers across California worked to engage Latino voters and make sure our voices were heard. Countless people did the hard work of political mobilization: knocking on doors, phone banking, making sure people got to the polls to cast their votes. That’s the work we have to be doing again today, educating voters about what’s at stake. While Donald Trump’s unapologetic hostility to immigrant communities, women, and people of different faiths means there’s no shortage of reasons to stand against him, we have to make sure our opposition rings out loud and clear on Election Day and beyond.
Sadly, Proposition 187 and Pete Wilson won at the ballot box in 1994, but if there is one enduring lesson from that story, it’s that when politicians push harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, they ultimately lose. But this is not an inevitable result — they lose because we organize and vote against them. When we show up on Election Day and cast a ballot against anti-immigrant bigotry, we decide elections and change the political tides. By turning out in record numbers this year, we can ensure that someone who scapegoats and attacks our communities never becomes the leader of our country.
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