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How Pete Wilson And The Wildly Anti-Immigrant Prop. 187 Helped Turn California From A GOP Bastion To A Democratic Stronghold

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As GOP presidential candidates head to California’s Simi Valley for their next debate at the Reagan Library, which will undoubtedly be another endless anti-immigrant tirade, it’s worth reviewing the trajectory that took the Golden State from a Republican bastion to a Democratic stronghold. Attacks on immigrants were a major factor.

The wildly anti-immigrant proposition that would have blocked undocumented immigrants from health care, public education, and other social services has been widely credited with pushing Latino voters away from the Republican Party in California and turning what was once a swing state solidly blue. Proposition 187, which passed on the November 1994 ballot before being halted by a federal court, sparked major blowback and ignited a shift in electoral politics that continues to this day. 

If you lived in California during this time and came from a Latino or immigrant household, you knew the major player behind this nasty proposal: Governor Pete Wilson. Or, as he was known in many households, El Diablo. “Among my peers, Wilson’s about as much a legend as La Llorona, El Cucuy and all the other monsters our parents scared us with as children — except he was the real thing,” Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in 2019.

He was El Diablo, El Cucuy, take your pick, because he made attacking immigrant families his electoral strategy. Trailing his Democratic opponent Kathleen Brown in his race for reelection, Wilson decided that trying to block the children of undocumented immigrants from a public school education was his ticket to staying in the governor’s mansion. 

“A now infamous video aired during the re-election campaign includes grainy footage of a group of assumed-to-be migrants running through the port of entry south of San Diego, while a narrator in an ominous tone warns of invasion,” The Guardian reported in 2020, previewing the kind of incendiary, conspiratorial rhetoric now common among top national Republicans. “They keep coming,” the ad claimed. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”

The disgusting attacks on the state’s immigrant families sparked some of the largest demonstrations the state had ever seen. In Los Angeles, a record 70,000 people marched in protest of the proposition. “‘This is not a parade, this is a social movement,’ said Juan Jose Gutierrez, an Eastside activist and leading march strategist, who noted planners’ desire to turn around what he called an anti-immigrant tide and win official recognition of immigrants’ contributions,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 1994. 

That’s exactly what happened. The political backlash from Latino voters and newly registered voters would lead to the near-extinction of California Republicans, swinging dramatically away from conservative candidates and staking the state in the solidly blue column ever since. Just one Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger (himself an immigrant) has won the governor’s seat since Wilson. “Pete Wilson is, in a strange way, a hero of the Latino community,” Dr. Gary Segura said in 2012. “It is fair to say that he has contributed to registering and mobilizing more Latino voters than any other person in history.”

Latino and immigrant families have continued to flex their muscles in more ways than one. We know its immigrant essential workers in the state who help keep the agricultural industry alive. “One in three workers in California is an immigrant, together making up a vital part of the state’s labor force in a range of industries,” the American Immigration Council said in 2020, with immigrant-led households paying nearly $39 billion in state and local taxes in 2019. If California were a nation, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world. 

The blowback in California also previewed the kind of organizing and political change we would eventually see in states like Arizona and Georgia, which passed anti-immigrant laws beginning in 2010. In 2020, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock became the first Democrats to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in two decades. Georgia also flipped blue in the 2020 presidential election, the first time since 1996. It was a similar story in Arizona, where the state also went for President Joe Biden and had two Democratic Senators (until one switched parties).

It’s safe to say that decades after Wilson and his ugly Proposition 187, the bad taste continues to linger in the mouths of Californians. Arellano interviewed Wilson for his 2019 piece in the Los Angeles Times. “The burly Latino guard stationed near the entrance of the Fox Plaza skyscraper in Century City looked as if he could have been one of my cousins back in Anaheim,” Arellano wrote. When the guard inquired about what he was doing at the building, Arellano responded that he was going to interview the former governor. “The guard’s face instantly took on a sour look.”

Republican presidential candidates set to debate in the state this week unfortunately have plans even more draconian than the anti-immigrant vision sought by Wilson and Proposition 187. Even after dangerous “invasion” rhetoric has resulted in a body count in communities like El Paso, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the first GOP debate in Wisconsin last month platformed deadly “invasion” conspiracy theory on a national scale. 

Numerous candidates have also endorsed using violence against our neighbor Mexico, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis turning his pledge to leave Mexicans “stone-cold dead” into a campaign slogan. Meanwhile, drug company executive Vivek Ramaswamy has vowed to deport U.S. citizen children. But as the 2022 midterms showed, nativism was not an electoral winner. We’ll see if any candidates take California’s lesson to heart.