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Are there lessons for Trump in a notorious California anti-immigrant measure?

After receiving early support, California’s anti-immigrant Prop 187 crashed and burned in the 90s, motivating a generation of Latinos to vote Democrat. Now, some activists predict Trump may end up mobilizing Democratic voters in historic fashion in upcoming elections, largely thanks to Latinos.
10 Mar 2017 – 01:20 PM EST
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Donald Trump addresses Congress February 28, devoting much of his speech to the issue of "illegal immigration." Crédito: Reuters

When Trump addressed a joint session of Congress last week, he provided a mostly positive vision for the United States – except when it came to immigration. On that point, the president remained steadfast in his view that immigrants are the cause of many of the nation’s ills.

His comments echoed remarks made by a Californian governor nearly a quarter century ago. In the mid-90s, Pete Wilson garnered widespread support among many white voters for his anti-immigrant platform and proposal to deny social services to undocumented immigrants.

But if California’s experience is any indication, Trump’s anti-immigrant furor may turn out to be a tipping point, changing states with large immigrant populations from red to purple. Early signs point to increased Latino involvement in politics. Some activists predict Trump may end up mobilizing Democratic voters in historic fashion in upcoming elections, largely thanks to Latinos.

Support for Prop 187

In the early 90s, California’s economy was in recession. The state faced budget shortfalls, job loss and shifting demographics. Governor Wilson had record-low approval ratings. Immigrants became an easy target.

“We must repeal the perverse incentives that now exist for people to immigrate to this country illegally,” Wilson wrote in 1993, launching his bid for re-election on the platform of being the first governor to get tough on “illegals.” In California, that meant Latinos.

“To stem the flow, we must seal the border and turn off the magnet,” he said.

An infamous campaign video showed desperate-looking people running through traffic as they crossed the border from Mexico into California. "Two million illegal immigrants in California," it said in a dark tone. “They keep coming.”

Wilson championed Proposition 187, the “Save Our State” (or “S.O.S.”) initiative, which proposed to deny most public benefits, including education and non-emergency healthcare, to undocumented immigrants. It also mandated that schools, public health facilities and police report anyone they believe might be undocumented.

Presidents as far back at Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression have blamed immigrants for stealing American jobs, but Wilson’s remarks and proposals were unprecedented in their scope. Many argued at the time that Prop 187 was a constitutional overreach.

“That was really the first time that immigrants were linked to this idea of using up resources and stealing social services,” says Annelise Orleck, a Professor of History at Dartmouth College. “And that’s an argument you hear a lot today.”

Wilson defended Prop 187 against claims of racism and bigotry, declaring it instead a matter of economics, justice and fairness.

But some of Prop 187’s primary backers were accused of being racist, like State Senator Don Rogers, a white supremacist in the Christian Identity movement, and Bette Hammond, who drove through Latino neighborhoods complaining about the smell of urine. It was also supported by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), one of the most well-known anti-illegal immigration groups in the country and considered an anti-immigrant hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group's leaders have white supremacist ties and are now staunch supporters of Donald Trump’s platform.

Louis DeSipio, a Political Science and Chicano/a Studies Professor at UC Irvine, says Wilson was savvy is his ability to capitalize on an increasingly hostile environment towards immigrants, who were easy to blame for the state’s dwindling budgets.

“There was an underlying racism that created a foundation that a skilled political leader could seize for tactical reasons and build into a policy agenda,” he says. “I don’t know that Pete Wilson really even cared about immigration in 1993 but he saw the underlying nativism and racism in the state population and used it as a way to distinguish his campaign from his opponents.”

And it worked. Despite widespread opposition, including among many Republican lawmakers, Proposition 187 was approved by California voters with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Wilson, who had reached record-low approval ratings during his first governorship, was re-elected.

Stuck in court

But Prop 187’s success didn’t last long.

Immediately after the initiative passed, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed suit against its constitutionality. Shortly thereafter, a federal district court judge held that it violated the U.S. Constitution and issued an injunction barring its implementation.

While the measure sat in the courts, Wilson pushed for a number of similarly controversial measures that appealed to white voters, including one to ban bilingual education and another to eliminate affirmative-action programs based on race and sex. That was a diversion for the governor: he’d previously supported affirmative action.

“He had to speak to the constituency that voted him in,” DeSipio explains.

Matt Barreto, a Professor of Political Science and Chicana/o Studies at UCLA and the co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions, says Wilson “made it okay to say racist views out loud.”

Barreto recalls reports of Prop 187 supporters telling Latinos to “go home and get out of our country,” and Latino organizations reporting harassment and racist phone calls and graffiti, especially in Orange County, a bastion of older white voters.

“It provided a space for anti-immigrant voices to feel more comfortable,” he says, “just like what’s happening now.”

In the process, Wilson and Republicans succeeded in alienating a large swath of the electorate, namely Latinos, who organized massive protests to Prop 187 as well as naturalized in large numbers.

Wilson briefly ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1996, but dropped out after a little more than a month.

After withering away in the courts, by 1999 Prop 187 was completely dead.

Political backlash

Many historians and political analysts point to Prop 187 as the tipping point for California politics, and at least part of the reason why California has gone from a purple state to solidly Democratic since the mid-90s.

The campaign awakened the electoral power of California's Latinos who have voted en masse against Republicans since then. Democrats have won nearly every statewide seat since Prop 187.

It also inspired a generation of Latino Democratic leaders in California. Current state Senators Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara, and assembly member Lorena González, got into politics in the mid-90s, because of Prop 187.

In 1996, there were 693 Latinos in elected office in California. By 2015, that number had grown to 1,337, according to The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

“The lesson from California is that this definitely creates a backlash,” Barreto says. “We’ve done models that suggest that California would have been competitive for two more presidential cycles and would probably be more of a leaning blue state had it not done Prop 187.”

Many argue that the GOP was already in decline in California before Prop 187. Republicans were seeing less support across ethnic lines, including among whites, before the measure. Others, like FAIR, argue that it wasn’t backlash against the GOP as much as immigrants who like the “free handouts” that Democrats offer, that made Latinos vote Democratic.

Though Pete Wilson has an accomplished record and was largely a moderate, his legacy is mostly often linked to Prop 187 and its symbolism.

Potential impact for Trump and Republicans

Barreto thinks the current anti-immigrant climate combined with an increasingly diverse electorate will have a similar impact in elections in the coming years.

Despite his wall-building, anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign, Trump did not awake “a sleeping giant” of Latino voters to vote against him, as many analysts predicted. Actually, a surprising number of Latinos voted for him.

Pollsters disagree on the final vote tally, largely because of the difficulty in measuring who is a Latino voter (the Census considers Hispanic an ethnic background, not a race). According to the National Election Poll, Clinton won the Latino vote 65-29 percent. According to Latino Decisions, Hispanic voters backed Clinton by a much larger 60-point margin, 79-18 percent.

But while Latino turnout underwhelmed expectations, a closer look shows Latinos did have a sizeable influence in many important races across the country.

Seven Latinos were elected in Congress – all Democrats. Darren Soto, a Democrat, became the first Puerto Rican to represent Florida in the House of Representatives and Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat from New York, was elected the first Dominican American to Congress. In Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, became the first Latina senator in history.

Voters in Nevada, once a swing state, favored Clinton over Trump and also voted in two Democrats to congressional seats that were held by Republicans, including Latino Ruben Kihuen. It was the third straight time the state voted for a Democrat for president.

In Arizona, which has championed many anti-immigrant measures in recent years, more than 500,000 Latinos cast ballots in 2016. That's up from just 291,000 Latino voters in 2008. Four years ago, Democrats lost the presidential election in Arizona by 9 points. In 2016, they lost by just four.

Beyond the presidential vote, local races in Arizona also reflected strong Latino organizing, like the defeat of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The state also passed a higher minimum wage law and elected the first Latino to Maricopa County-wide office, political newcomer Adrian Fontes.

“Arizona is going to be the next example,” Barretto predicts.

Trump won Texas, too, but only by a 9 percent margin. In 2012, President Obama lost the state by nearly 16 points; in 2008 he lost by 12 points.

Now, groups like EMILY’s List, a Democratic outfit aimed at electing women, and the Latino Victory Fund, which recently refocused to be a Latino progressive organization, are aiming to capitalize on momentum from the 2016 elections to get even more qualified Latinos in office in time for the midterms.

Barreto argues that the impact of Trump’s anti-immigrant stance won’t be immediate, just as Wilson’s wasn’t. After all, Wilson won re-election on his anti-immigrant campaign. The impacts of Prop 187 in California became clear only in the years that followed, when Latino political participation grew substantially.

There are signs of that happening already, he says.

In New Mexico, the state with the highest proportion of Hispanic legislators in the country (30 Hispanic representatives of a total 70 and 15 senators of 42), lawmakers have already introduced a slate of pro-immigrant initiatives in response to Trump – to prevent the construction of the border wall in the New Mexico state-owned borderlands, make New Mexico a "sanctuary state" and prevent the New Mexico National Guard from being used for operations against immigrants.

And as the number of Hispanic eligible voters continue to grow nationwide, there are other factors that might impact future races. The website FiveThirtyEight pointed out recently that Latinos are concentrated in states that are likely to gain electoral votes in 2024. That means Latino political power could have a big impact in the 2022 congressional election cycle and the 2024 presidential election.

“Alienating Latino voters will become riskier as Florida, Texas and Arizona become more competitive while also gaining electoral votes,” FiveThirtyEight wrote.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy has already had dangerous repercussions, civil rights experts warn. Among them, it has contributed to a rash of hate and violence directed at immigrants in cities and towns across the country, as Univision has documented. A number of Univision readers have reported being told to " go back to your country."

"Voters are going to remember that," Barreto says.

“Trump’s directing his ICE agents to deport people with no criminal record, detain Dreamers, etc.,” he says. “Even though he won this election, he’s motivating perhaps a generation of Latinos to think the Republicans are racist. And right now, it looks like we’re going to be able to say that all Republicans in Congress went along with Trump’s deportation force.”

Fernando Peinado contributed reporting to this article.