R.I.P. Prop. 187

California Gov. Gray Davis' flip-flop marks the end of immigrant bashing as a viable political tactic.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, California, Immigration,

Bashing illegal immigrants is no longer a ticket to political success — at least if California Gov. Gray Davis’ flip-flop is any indication. After briefly resurrecting Proposition 187 from its political grave, Davis Thursday announced a settlement that essentially voids the most controversial provisions of the 1994 California ballot initiative. The law, passed by nearly 60 percent of California voters in 1994, would have removed undocumented children from public schools and denied emergency health care to people who were living in the state illegally. It was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer last year.

Proposition 187 was the beginning of the anti-immigrant brush fire that spread across the country between 1993 and 1996. The fact that even Davis, who makes President Clinton look like a political risk-taker, has dropped the appeal underscores just how dramatic the change in the political climate on immigration has been, both in California and across the country. “I don’t think this measure would pass if it were before voters today,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the liberal National Immigration Forum in Washington. “I think in 1994 you were dealing with a unique confluence of factors. You had the World Trade Center bombings, there were Haitian boats arriving on the shores, you had incredible distrust of the government in general and there was a real perception that the government was just sitting back and doing nothing.”

“The seal of the great state of California is now stamped on the death certificate of Proposition 187,” crowed Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

With the country mired in a deep recession, immigration became a potent political issue. Two years later, facing a reelection campaign of his own, Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that slashed benefits for legal immigrants.

Though Proposition 187 may be legally dead, the initiative has left an indelible stamp on the political legacy of California and the nation. The issue became the cornerstone of Gov. Pete Wilson’s then-lagging reelection campaign in 1994, and sent shock waves across the nation. Prominent Republicans such as Jack Kemp and William Bennett came out against the measure, while many California Republicans reluctantly supported it.

“The Republican Congress made a big mistake when it passed a welfare bill that denied benefits to legal immigrants,” said Dan Schnur, spokesman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Wilson press secretary. “The moral underpinning of any effort to crack down on illegal immigration is strong support for legal immigration. When Congress and Clinton took away those benefits for legal immigrants, the debate changed from one of legality to one of ethnicity, which is totally inappropriate. Most Americans believe that illegal immigration is wrong and that there ought to be a crackdown on those who come into this country without proper legal authorization. Most people feel just as strongly that legal immigration is something to be rewarded and supported.”

To be sure, the improvement in the American economy since 1996 has made supporting legal immigration easier. Efforts, albeit piecemeal, have been made to restore benefits to immigrants. (Most of these efforts have been aimed at legal immigrants, but some states have restored certain benefits like prenatal care for illegal immigrants as well.) Last year, the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress restored $818 million worth of food stamps for children and seniors. This year, the administration is backing an additional restoration of food stamps and health benefits for children and some seniors who have not had their benefits restored.

State houses have also picked up some of the slack, with 20 states implementing their own programs to make up for some of the benefits cut by the federal government. In Texas in 1997, Gov. George W. Bush backed a program that covered children and seniors that was picked up in last year’s federal legislation. No new state-funded programs have been endorsed by Bush.

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“The political climate here is such that Gov. Bush doesn’t want to do anything really bad for immigrants, but he doesn’t seem to want to do anything too good either,” said Celia Hagert, nutrition policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas. “We’ve tried to get restorations and failed. There’s just not a lot of political support for this population, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any help from the governor’s office this year.”

Still, Bush has positioned himself as the anti-Wilson in the early stages of this political campaign. In a recent campaign swing through California, he made a brief stop at a Mexican cultural event in San Diego, just long enough to get some good video for the evening news, including a brief Bush sound bite in Spanish. The only one-on-one interview he granted was to Spanish-language network Unavision, an interview conducted almost entirely in Spanish.

Bush’s about-face from the policies many Republicans eagerly embraced in Wilson’s heyday demonstrates the damaging effect Proposition 187 has had on Republican candidates in the five years since the measure’s passage. Since 1994, Latino voter turnout has nearly doubled, while Republican candidates have received less and less of the Latino vote. In last year’s gubernatorial election, Republican Dan Lungren received less than 20 percent of California’s Latino support.

Symbolically, the apparent death of Proposition 187 signifies the end of an era. Immigration has all but evaporated as a defining political issue in major immigrant capitals like Texas and California. “I think it’s still an issue with that 25 percent of the Republican primary universe who care deeply about it,” said Bill Carrick, who ran Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaign in 1994. “I think the public decided a lot of that went too far. Throwing kids out of school or denying undocumented folks rights to emergency health care was too far.”

Some believe Proposition 187′s ultimate legacy for Latinos and other immigrants will, ironically, be a positive one. “I think Gov. Wilson will one day go down as the father of Latino politics in California,” said Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. “But more than galvanize the vote, he pushed immigrants off the fence. Immigrants who had not firmly rooted themselves in the U.S. suddenly were forced to commit psychologically. It wasn’t good for society to have an entire segment of the population who were not feeling themselves part of the civic fabric.”

But Rodriguez also believes that though the decibel level may have gone down, the core issues and concerns about immigration have not gone away. “I’m not condoning the scapegoating of immigrants, but one could easily see how native Californians reacted to such a profound shift. No one wants to live in a neighborhood in which you don’t know your neighbors anymore. We shouldn’t pooh-pooh people’s reactions to change, and not talking about it will not make it go away.”

Despite the persistence of these larger issues, many see the change in the political climate on immigration as little short of extraordinary. “Nationally, there seems to be an emerging bipartisan majority that is for restoring some balance in the immigration policies,” said Sharry. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s no longer about who’s tougher on immigration, it’s who’s more immigrant-friendly. In California, the GOP is hoping Bush can bail them out of the shadow of Pete Wilson. In five years, that’s a remarkable turnaround.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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