A collaboration between Futuro Studios and Los Angeles Times.
Updated on November 15, 2019 to include an interview with Pete Wilson.
It’s 1993 in California. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are on the radio. The state is struggling with a drought and a budget deficit.
Enter a group of mostly-white Orange County residents who are concerned about the rising number of people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. They decide to collect signatures to get a tough proposition on the California ballot that would deny undocumented families the ability to use social services, attend public schools or access non-emergency public health care. It was called Proposition 187.
Prop 187 dominated the ’94 election cycle in California. It sent shockwaves through Latino and immigrant communities. Undocumented people worried about what would happen to their children, and many Latinos who had been in the country for generations felt the proposition was racially motivated and would single them out for discrimination.
Pete Wilson, the Republican governor running for re-election that year, further stoked racial tensions with an incendiary ad that began with the words “they keep coming,” accompanied by the image of masses of shadowy figures running across the border. Activists organized marches and walk-outs in response. It soon escalated into one of the fiercest political fights California had seen for a generation.
In many ways, Proposition 187 was the first shot in the battle over immigration that is front-and-center in national politics today. Looking back 25 years later, many believe that Proposition 187 is responsible for turning California into the deep blue state it is today by mobilizing Latino voters against the Republican Party. So what does Prop 187’s story mean for the United States in the age of President Trump?
In the series, we revisit the fight over Prop 187 and look at how it continues to reverberate in our politics and culture today.
Host Gustavo Arellano learns how Prop 187 was born 25 years ago and talks to the pair of Orange County political consultants who helped write it. We learn what California looked like in 1993 and how the then-governor of California, Pete Wilson, attached himself to Prop 187. Issues around immigration are beginning to set the tone for a huge political debate.
In June 1994, 187 gets enough signatures to qualify for the California ballot. Proponents get support for the ballot measure through a new tagline: Save Our State. Latinos see 187 as an existential threat, so they organize school walk-outs and a march in downtown Los Angeles. But undecided voters see the Mexican flags waved at the march as an invasion come to life. In November 1994, 187 passes and Governor Pete Wilson is re-elected.
Just one day after the 1994 election, federal and state lawsuits are filed, claiming 187 is unconstitutional. And though 187 finally dies for good in 1999, Latinos in California never forget it. Prop 187 inspired more Latinos than ever before to register to vote and to run for office in California. Host Gustavo Arellano ends with one question: given President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, are we poised to experience another 187 at a national scale?
Bonus: Interview With Pete Wilson
Featured cover photo by Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times.
For more stories and photos related to Prop 187, check out the coverage from the Los Angeles Times here.