California’s Prop 187: A Perpetual Warning to Immigrant-Bashers

A quarter century ago this month, California voters approved Proposition 187, a Republican-backed ballot measure restricting rights and benefits available to undocumented immigrants. Originally sponsored by GOP assemblyman Richard Mountjoy, the initiative was quickly adopted by GOP governor (and former U.S. senator) Pete Wilson, who was running for reelection. Prop 187 passed by a comfortable 59/41 margin, and Wilson, who had been running well behind Democrat Kathleen Brown (sister of once and future governor Jerry Brown) in early polls, won by an equally comfortable 55/41 margin. It was arguably the high tide of Republican strength in California.

But it was also the beginning of the end of GOP hegemony in California as well, as Libby Denkmann recalls at LAist:

It was the fall of 1994. On TV, popping up between episodes of Murphy Brown and The X-Files, ads for Governor Pete Wilson’s reelection showed grainy video of people running into the U.S. from Mexico.

“They keep coming,” a narrator intoned. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them …”

[W]ith 25 years’ worth of hindsight, many argue the short-term ballot victories came at a massive long-term cost for the GOP.

Prop 187 awakened the political power of Latinos in the Golden state …

Pete Wilson is remembered by some as the Republican governor who launched a thousand California Democrats’ careers.

The initiative was never really implemented:

Several anti-Prop 187 groups challenged the measure with lawsuits immediately, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. On Nov. 16, U.S. District Court Judge W. Mathew Byrne issued a temporary restraining order against the initiative’s implementation.

Altogether, five lawsuits would be filed challenging the measure. On Dec. 14, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer issued a preliminary injunction, blocking implementation on a majority of the measure’s provisions.

When Democrat Gray Davis succeeded Wilson in 1999, the state stopped appealing adverse judicial rulings against Prop 187, and it became a dead letter — except for the fact that it positioned the Republican Party as hostile to immigrants in a state rapidly being reshaped by immigration.

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