Opinion: Proposition 187’s anti-immigrant cruelty was a California tradition

U.S. immigration policy today offers a parade of horrors: Children caged in detention centers. Family separations. ICE agents dragging parents away from the school dropoff. Rules stiffened to deny green cards to immigrants for using food stamps or housing vouchers. Looking at these outrages, as some have noted, it seems the cruelty is the point.

True enough. But this specific kind of cruelty — the deliberate targeting of families — also has a point. The logic behind it, and its long history in American policy, holds that the biggest danger of immigration is women and their children.

California voters made this particular point 25 years ago, when they approved Proposition 187 on Nov. 8, 1994. That ballot initiative — had it not been stayed by federal courts — would have denied public education, healthcare and other state services to immigrants who were undocumented.

Supporters of 187, including then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, invoked the ugly stereotype of the “anchor baby,” the idea that immigrant mothers, especially Mexicans, illegally enter the United States in droves to give birth at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, with the goal of securing citizenship and other public benefits for themselves and their babies.

Targeting services most essential to families with children, and accompanied by an outburst of proposals to end birthright citizenship, Proposition 187 specifically aimed to foreclose Latino families’ ability to take shape or take root here.

The impulse to deny public services to immigrant families dates back much further than 1994, to at least the 1930s and the Great Depression. Immigration law at the time was focused on the idea that newcomers were a drain on public resources, a charge again echoed in Proposition 187 rhetoric, despite evidence that immigrants with and without papers were contributing to the tax base. In 1930s parlance, anyone who received “charity” within five years of entering the U.S. was deemed deportable.

Predictable family separation tragedies followed, and Congress wasn’t completely immune from them. In May 1935, debate began on a bill that would have allowed immigrants of “good moral character” with no criminal offenses to escape deportation, and to move toward citizenship, even if they had used charity.

By NATALIA MOLINA for LOS ANGELES TIMES
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