1994 California Proposition 187
Results by county
|Source: 1994 Statement of Vote|
|Elections in California|
California Proposition 187 (also known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative) was a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit undocumented immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services in the State of California. Voters passed the proposed law at a referendum on November 8, 1994. The law was challenged in a legal suit the day after its passage, and found unconstitutional by a federal district court on November 11. In 1999, Governor Gray Davis halted state appeals of this ruling.
Passage of Proposition 187 reflected state residents' concerns about illegal immigration into the United States. Opponents believed the law was motivated by bigotry against undocumented immigrants of Hispanic or Asian origin; supporters maintained that their concerns were economic: that the state could not afford to provide social services for so many people who had entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
The California Legislative Analyst's Office later said that the cost of verification would be greater than any fiscal benefits of the ballot measure. As the state's demographics have shifted to include more immigrants, those new citizens' opposition to Proposition 187 has been cited as a reason for the decline of the Republican Party in California.
Background and passage
In 1994, California had an estimated 1.3 million undocumented immigrants. Some residents were increasingly concerned about the costs of providing services to the families of such undocumented immigrants.
The Republican assemblyman Dick Mountjoy of Monrovia introduced Proposition 187 to the state legislature as the "Save Our State" (SOS) initiative. It gained enough signatures to be placed on the ballot as a statutory initiative during the general election on November 8, 1994. Originally one of several immigration reform bills placed before the California legislature in the early 1990s, polls surveying community responses showed that Proposition 187 began with widespread support—a 37-point lead in July 1994, and 62-29% lead among likely voters by September 1994. Proponents of the bill estimated that California spent $3 billion per year on services for illegal immigrants, about half of which provided education to children of illegal immigrants.
Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, was a prominent supporter of Proposition 187, which ultimately became a key issue during his 1994 re-election campaign against Democratic opponent Kathleen Brown. After facing record low approval ratings during his first term, Wilson trailed Brown in opinion polls by more than 20% early during the gubernatorial campaign. Commentators considered his aggressive support of the Proposition 187 as crucial to his re-election.
In the days leading up to the election, Wilson said that he would require all state and local government employees to report suspected illegal immigrants to the Attorney General's Office if Proposition 187 passed. State Attorney General Dan Lungren, also running for re-election, agreed to enforce emergency regulations to implement the law immediately after the election.
During the United States Senate election in California, 1994 campaign, the incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Michael Huffington both adopted tough policies against illegal immigration. The candidates each revealed that they had previously hired illegal immigrants for housekeeping and childcare. Unlike Feinstein, Huffington had hired a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which made it illegal to knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Feinstein was narrowly re-elected.
President Bill Clinton urged Californians to reject Proposition 187 as an impediment to federal policy on immigration. After stating that "it is not wrong for you [Californians] to want to reduce illegal immigration," Clinton asked voters to allow the federal government to "keep working on what we're doing." In November 1994, Clinton publicly criticized the ballot measure, stating that it “is not the answer” to the issues stemming from illegal immigration.
In the days leading up to the ballot measure vote, Latino students organized large protests of Proposition 187 across the state, including a mass boycott of high schools. Their protests often included waving the Mexican flag, a controversial symbol that was described by opponents as counterproductive.
On November 8, 1994, California voters approved the proposition by a wide margin: 59% to 41%. According to the Los Angeles Times exit polls, 63% of non-Hispanic white voters and 23% of Latino voters voted for Proposition 187; African-American and ethnic Asian voters split their voting equally for and against the law. Although non-Hispanic whites comprised 57% of California's population at the time, they comprised 81% of voters in the 1994 general election. Latinos totaled 8% of voters, although they comprised 26% of the state's population.
Section 1 of Proposition 187 provides this introduction:
The People of California find and declare as follows:
That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.
Key elements of Proposition 187
Proposition 187 included the following key elements:
- All law enforcement agents who suspect that a person who has been arrested is in violation of immigration laws must investigate the detainee's immigration status, and if they find evidence of illegality they must report it to the attorney general of California, and to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). They must also notify the detainee of his or her apparent status as an alien.
- Local governments are prohibited from preventing or limiting the fulfillment of this requirement.
- If government agents suspect anyone applying for benefits of being illegal immigrants, the agents must report their suspicions in writing to the appropriate enforcement authorities.
- A person shall not receive any public social services until he or she has been verified as a United States citizen or as a lawfully admitted alien.
- A person shall not receive any health care services from a publicly funded health care facility until he or she meets the requirements above.
- A public elementary or secondary school shall not admit or permit the attendance of any child until he or she meets the requirements above.
- By 1996, each school district shall verify the legal status of each child enrolled within the district and the legal status of each parent or guardian of each child.
- A child who is in violation of the requirements above shall not continue to attend the school 90 days from the date of notice to the attorney general and INS.
- The attorney general must keep records on all such cases and make them available to any other government entity that wishes to inspect them.
- The manufacture, distribution, sale, or use of false citizenship or residency documents is a state felony punishable by imprisonment or fine.
Activists on campuses, churches, and ethnic communities in California and across the country rallied to express opposition to Proposition 187. Critics argued that the measure was xenophobic and discriminated against ethnic minorities, especially those of Latino origin. Others were fearful that the costs of a state-run citizenship screening system and the potential loss of federal funds would off-set any savings of denying public benefits to unlawful residents. The day after the law was approved, an alliance of Latino and civil rights groups, including Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and American Civil Liberties Union, filed lawsuits against the measure in state court. Multiple local governments outside California, including the city of Denver, Colorado, threatened to boycott the state altogether. Latino organizations announced that they would not hold conventions in California and urged a boycott by their members and supporters of Disneyland, a major tourist attraction.
Proposition 187 was widely supported by conservatives. However, some prominent conservatives, including former Congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, publicly opposed the initiative.
Due to Proposition 187's statutes requiring children and their parents or legal guardians to prove their legal status, the California State Parent-Teacher Association joined in opposing the bill. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Gray Davis, who succeeded Wilson, campaigned against Proposition 187. On October 16, 1994, three weeks before Proposition 187 was passed, more than 70,000 people marched in downtown Los Angeles against the measure.
The Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, decried the law as xenophobic and harmful to the human rights of migrant laborers. One week after the bill was approved, Salinas proposed cross-border discussions to develop a "guest worker" program that would permit non-resident Mexicans to work legally in the United States. Such a program had been in place during World War II.
Ethnic minority reactions
Reactions against the proposition varied between and within different ethnic minority groups. Latino communities are cited as having been the most active; Hispanic students in particular were marked as they marched in the streets with Mexican flags. Some sources claim that this reaction might have caused indecisive voters to vote in favor of the proposition. When Hispanic students were criticized for waving Mexican flags during demonstrations in Los Angeles, community leaders responded to the controversy by saying that it was "a symbolic clinging to self-pride".
Asian communities in particular were divided, with a slight tendency towards supporting the proposition with 57 percent voting in favor.  However, as the bill became more visible, Asian communities came to be known as a group that took increasingly more visceral actions. Over time, general populist support for the bill dropped from 49% to 38%, a drop that is credited to the "massive organizing among California's communities of color, particularly the Latino and Asian communities". In fact, the largest organized group in support of Proposition 187 at the time of October 1994 was the Asian Americans for Border Control in Sylmar, which had only ten members. On the other hand, Chinese, Japanese, Cambodian, Thai and Korean alliances and coalitions banded to form the Asian Pacific Islanders Against Proposition 187 which consisted of hundreds of members. Significantly, many consider the strong reactions against Proposition 187 as the first time such numbers of Asian Americans have come together, with around 60 organizations joining forces.
The constitutionality of Proposition 187 was challenged by several lawsuits. On November 11, 1994, three days after the bill's passage, Federal Judge W. Matthew Byrne issued a temporary restraining order against institution of the measure, which was filed by State Attorney General Dan Lungren. After Judge Mariana Pfaelzer issued a permanent injunction of Proposition 187 in December 1994, blocking all provisions except those dealing with higher education and false documents, multiple cases were consolidated and brought before the federal court. In November 1997, Pfaelzer found the law to be unconstitutional on the basis that it infringed on the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction over matters relating to immigration. Pfaelzer also explained that Proposition 187's effect on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the congressional overhaul of the American welfare system, proved that the bill was a "scheme" to regulate immigration:
"California is powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration. It is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits."
Governor Wilson appealed the ruling, which brought the case to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in 1999, the newly elected Democratic Governor Gray Davis had the case brought before mediation. His administration withdrew the appeal before the courts in July 1999, effectively killing the law.
The unenforceable sections of Proposition 187 remained on the books until 2014. In September of that year, California passed a bill, SB 396, that removed those sections from California's education, health and safety, and welfare codes, as a symbolic act after the overturn of Prop.187. Bill author Kevin de León said this "closes a dark chapter in our state’s history, and brings dignity and respect to the national immigration debate."
Noting a rapid increase in the number of Latinos voting in California elections, some analysts cite Wilson and the Republican Party's embrace of Proposition 187 as a cause of the subsequent failure of the party to win statewide elections. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that Republican support of Proposition 187 and two later state ballot initiatives—Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended affirmative action at governmental institutions, and Proposition 227 in 1998, which limited bilingual education in public schools—shifted both white and Latino voters in California away from identifying with the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party. The authors of the study said that the "results raise serious questions about the long-term efficacy of racially divisive strategies for electoral gain." Studies published in 2001 and 2011 also show that Proposition 187 mobilized Hispanic voters for the Democratic Party. However, a 2018 study questioned the conventional wisdom that Proposition 187 led to an abrupt realignment in Latino voters' political preferences.
Conservative group Eagle Forum instead argues that immigration, whether legal or not, made California's electorate more liberal. Fred Bauer of National Review concurs, adding that Democrats have usually controlled both branches of the California state legislature since the 1960s and that the Democratic Party has had consistently strong support among both white and Hispanic voters in California. Bill Whalen, a former aide to Wilson, in an article for Forbes, noted that Proposition 187 was popular among voters and that Republican struggles in California are partly due to women gradually moving away from the party for other reasons, particularly reproductive rights. Whalen also cited Schwarzenegger's reelection as governor in 2006, in which he won 39% of the votes cast by Latinos, as evidence that Proposition 187 did not harm Republicans' chances of being elected in California. Writing after Schwarzenegger's 2003 recall election victory, Debra J. Saunders of The Weekly Standard noted that he won the election despite voting for Proposition 187, which other publications had claimed would seriously jeopardize his bid.
During Donald Trump's 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, his use of "anti-immigrant tactics" drew comparisons from media members to Wilson and California Proposition 187. Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Many have had a visceral reaction to Trump's proposals that include deporting 11 million people and building an enormous border wall. Protests greet Trump whenever he holds rallies in California."
In popular culture
Three Keys by Kelly Yang is a middle grade novel set in southern California during the period leading up to the November 8, 1994 referendum on immigration generally known as Prop 187.
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- Yang, Kelly (2020). Three Keys. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 9781338591385.
- Works related to California Proposition 187 (1994) at Wikisource