The 1994 anti-il­le­gal-im­mi­gra­tion bal­lot ini­tia­tive gal­va­nized Lati­nos and trans­formed Cal­i­for­nia

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Gus­tavo Arel­lano

Some­thing was about to go down and no one wanted to make the first move. My best friend Art and I stood in the quad at our usual lunch spot: near the fountain, un­der the big trees. Jocks and nerds, ston­ers and band geeks, cho­los and artsy types milled about.

Fi­nally, one kid walked to the chain­link fence that sep­a­rated Ana­heim High School from the street. He threw over his back­pack and climbed. Then an­other. More. Dozens. So many the fence col­lapsed from the weight. A stream of stu­dents swelled into a flood that con­verged with a po­lit­i­cal tsunami.

On Nov. 2, 1994, over 10,000 teenagers across Cal­i­for­nia walked out to protest Propo­si­tion 187. The ini­tia­tive sought to pun­ish “il­le­gal aliens” by deny­ing them cer­tain ser­vices, in­clud­ing ac­cess to pub­lic health­care and ed­u­ca­tion.

Propo­si­tion 187 split the psy­che of the state like few things be­fore or since.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans, con­fronted with a more di­verse state and bat­tered by the state’s worst eco­nomic cri­sis since the Great De­pres­sion, came to be­lieve the prob­lem was those so-called “il­le­gals” and their chil­dren.

Gov. Pete Wilson, fac­ing an up­hill re­elec­tion cam­paign, led the charge, re­leas­ing cam­paign ads that showed grainy footage of peo­ple swarm­ing across the San Ysidro bor­der cross­ing as an omi­nous voice in­toned: “They keep com­ing.”

Many Lati­nos, whether here legally le­gal or not, saw the propo­si­tion as an ex­is­ten­tial threat. Wilson’s “they” looked an aw­ful lot like them.

The stu­dent marches were the cul­mi­na­tion of a month of anti-Propo­si­tion 187 teach-ins, de­bates, let­ter-writ­ing cam

paigns and some of the largest protests Cal­i­for­nia had seen since the Viet­nam War.

It didn’t work. The ini­tia­tive eas­ily won. Pun­dits de­clared Wilson a ge­nius and pre­dicted his vic­tory, and the bal­lot mea­sure he tied his for­tunes to sig­ni­fied a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment in Cal­i­for­nia. For a time, it seemed like it. The true bat­tle of Propo­si­tion 187, how­ever, was just be­gin­ning. By the time it was over, the state that gave Amer­ica con­ser­va­tive icons Richard Nixon and Ron­ald Rea­gan was on the road to be­com­ing a pro­gres­sive pow­er­house. Within 20 years, Cal­i­for­nia was of­fi­cially a “sanc­tu­ary” state, one where im­mi­grants who lacked le­gal sta­tus could get every­thing from free health­care to driver’s li­censes, and even serve on state com­mis­sions.

And many of the young Propo­si­tion 187 pro­test­ers were now lead­ers run­ning the state.

“What 187 did is spawn a new gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians,” said Kevin de León, the for­mer pres­i­dent pro tem of the Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate, who was in his early 20s when he helped to or­ga­nize a rally out­side Los Angeles City Hall that drew more than 70,000 peo­ple. “There’s no ques­tion about it. There’s no am­bi­gu­ity. There’s no vague­ness. There’s no room for mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

But Propo­si­tion 187 did some­thing else: It gave Repub­li­can politi­cians a tem­plate with which to win elec­tions and na­tivist hearts across the United States.

The hard feel­ings against im­mi­grants — most no­tably those in the coun­try il­le­gally, but if we’re hon­est, not al­ways — was tapped all the way to the White House by one Don­ald Trump.

Trump the can­di­date said of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants: “When Mex­ico sends its peo­ple, they’re not send­ing their best. They’re not send­ing you .... They’re send­ing peo­ple that have lots of prob­lems, and they’re bring­ing those prob­lems with us. They’re bring­ing drugs. They’re bring­ing crime. They’re rapists.” As pres­i­dent, he speaks of in­va­sions and crim­i­nals and “il­le­gals” and “big, beau­ti­ful walls.” And yes, that feels like deja vu. But the vo­cal and an­gry re­jec­tion of Trump’s views across Amer­ica also feels like an an­other byprod­uct of the Propo­si­tion 187 bat­tle. So many have found a voice. “When I an­swer the ques­tion, ‘Why are you so pas­sion­ate about civil rights or com­bat­ing in­equal­ity,’ I tell them ‘Prop. 187,’ ” says Adri­enna Wong, staff at­tor­ney at the ACLU of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She at­tended el­e­men­tary school in the San Gabriel Val­ley dur­ing the cam­paign, and learned about it when “kids that I’ve been in the same class with for years started say­ing things like, ‘You and your fam­ily should go back to where you came from. You’re tak­ing our jobs.’ ”

Back in the fall of 1994, my first brush with im­mi­gra­tion pol­i­tics came when I was walk­ing home from Ana­heim High School and a truck­ful of white teenage boys yelled at me “187! 187!”

I had no idea what they meant, un­til I got home and turned on the news. Those white boys who yelled at me were all the ex­pla­na­tion I needed about the propo­si­tion.

I wanted to fight back, but had no idea how. Then word soon spread around cam­pus about an up­com­ing anti-Propo­si­tion 187 walk­out.

No one imag­ined any of what would be­come the ini­tia­tive’s legacy when my class­mates left cam­pus en masse one Novem­ber day.

All we knew was that many adults had spent all of 1994 ac­cus­ing our par­ents of de­stroy­ing Cal­i­for­nia. And we weren’t go­ing to stay quiet any­more. And so many of us climbed over that fence. But not me. Not that day.

I hung back. My friends ended up on the lo­cal news, while I was one of maybe six stu­dents in my fifth-pe­riod his­tory class.

We didn’t say a word about what had just hap­pened. We were ashamed for not be­ing out there.

as a fluke.

Bar­bara and Bob Ki­ley, a hus­band-and-wife po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant team from Yorba Linda, had a gad­fly friend named Ron Prince who wanted to put a propo­si­tion on the Cal­i­for­nia bal­lot. They said they had Prince stand out­side a su­per­mar­ket with a notepad to try to get sig­na­tures for his var­i­ous causes.

None hit un­til one day in the fall of 1993, when Prince placed on top of his notepad the prompt: “Do you be­lieve il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion is a prob­lem in Cal­i­for­nia?”

“He comes back with pages of sig­na­tures,” said Bar­bara, who was also Yorba Linda’s mayor at the time. Im­pressed, she said she told Prince: “You know, Ron? I think you got some­thing here.”

(I could not reach Prince via phone, email or in­ter­me­di­aries.)

The Ki­leys, though long­time con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, never felt il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion was a prob­lem. But they put to­gether a dream team of anti-im­mi­gra­tion hard­lin­ers — for­mer im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, politi­cians, at­tor­neys, ac­tivists — to fig­ure out what ev­ery­one could ac­com­plish to­gether.

The group chris­tened their cam­paign Save Our State — “SOS,” for short. They came up with the name af­ter four rounds of mar­gar­i­tas dur­ing a strat­egy ses­sion at an El Torito in Orange, Bar­bara said.

In June 1994, Propo­si­tion 187 of­fi­cially qual­i­fied for the Nov. 8 elec­tion and was co­in­ci­den­tally as­signed the same num­ber that Cal­i­for­nia’s pe­nal code des­ig­nates for mur­der.

It ar­rived at the per­fect time. Things had got­ten tough in the Golden State, and Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can vot­ers and politi­cians alike be­lieved il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion threat­ened the Cal­i­for­nia dream.

Early polling on Propo­si­tion 187 found a ma­jor­ity of Latino vot­ers ac­tu­ally sup­ported the mea­sure.

Ma­jor Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein stayed largely silent. Chi­cano ac­tivists crit­i­cized main­stream groups such as Tax­pay­ers Against 187 and Demo­cratic politi­cians for be­ing too meek.

They never ex­pected some­thing as bla­tantly xeno­pho­bic as Propo­si­tion 187 to ever qual­ify in Cal­i­for­nia.

“Save our state from what? From me?” said Ger­ardo Cor­rea, now an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal at Sad­dle­back High School. Born in Mex­ico and smug­gled into the United States at age 2, Cor­rea was about to be­come a sopho­more at La Puente High School when he learned about Propo­si­tion 187 dur­ing a Chi­cano stu­dent con­fer­ence in Sacra­mento.

He re­mem­bered think­ing: “I’m a threat to you? Like, I’m a lawabid­ing cit­i­zen. I’m gonna try to go to school. I’m try­ing to better my­self. Like, how am I the threat?”

Even­tu­ally, Cor­rea and his friends joined hun­dreds of high school and col­lege stu­dents at Fresno State Univer­sity dur­ing the sum­mer for a week­end strat­egy ses­sion.

There, the seeds of the Nov. 2 walk­outs were planted.

“Peo­ple were work­ing on, like, ‘OK, you’re go­ing to get in con­tact with Roo­sevelt High. You’re go­ing to get in con­tact with kids in Orange County,’ ” said Ulises Sanchez, a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who was 14 at the time. “‘Then, we’re go­ing to go to class. Then, when it’s time, you walk out.’ ”

I grew up in Ana­heim, less than half an hour from the Ki­leys’ wellkept Yorba Linda home.

My fa­ther orig­i­nally came to this coun­try in the trunk of a Chevy in 1968, and sneaked across the bor­der many times af­ter­ward. (He’s now a U.S. cit­i­zen.)

Ev­ery white fam­ily in my neigh­bor­hood ex­cept for one moved within five years of my fam­ily’s ar­rival. My world was one where no one dis­tin­guished be­tween “le­gal” and “il­le­gal” im­mi­grants, and de­por­ta­tion was just a way of life that $1,000 and a smart coy­ote could solve.

And yet I ag­o­nized about whether to join the Propo­si­tion 187 op­po­si­tion.

My friends and I de­bated

whether we should walk out. We asked what ditch­ing school would ac­com­plish. If we walked out, how many other stu­dents would we ac­tu­ally be join­ing? Then there were the sur­prises, like find­ing out that a class­mate whose par­ents were refugees from El Sal­vador sup­ported Propo­si­tion 187 and railed against “il­le­gals.”

Still, when the big day came, my Sal­vado­ran friend walked out. And I didn’t.

Propo­si­tion 187 dis­gusted me — but not enough, in that mo­ment of my life, to spur me to ac­tion.

I was too scared, hon­estly: of po­lice, of la mi­gra, of de­ten­tion, of any­thing re­motely rad­i­cal.

And I didn’t think we’d achieve any­thing by ditch­ing class. But my peers did.

They drew na­tional at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter many waved Mex­i­can flags. That was red meat for crit­ics, who seemed aw­fully for­giv­ing when other groups, such as Ir­ish and Ital­ian Amer­i­cans, waved the flags of their fore­bears. To these crit­ics, wav­ing the Mex­i­can flag was lit­tle less than sedi­tion.

Demo­cratic bosses were hor­ri­fied by the Mex­i­can flags. I winced when I saw the tri­color in news­pa­pers and on tele­vi­sion — though I got why peo­ple did it, I felt the ges­ture wasn’t go­ing to do any fa­vors with on-the-fence vot­ers.

Propo­si­tion 187’s ar­chi­tects, mean­while, were thrilled.

“That was just a god­send for them [to] start do­ing that,” Bob Ki­ley said. “It was a gift. ‘Thank you very much. I don’t have to do any more. It’s over.’ ”

He was right, at first: Vot­ers over­whelm­ingly sup­ported Propo­si­tion 187, by 59% to 41% — a big­ger mar­gin of vic­tory than even Wilson got.

But the day af­ter it passed, eight fed­eral and state law­suits held up the full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the propo­si­tion. A judge ruled it un­con­sti­tu­tional in 1997; Wilson’s suc­ces­sor, Gray Davis, dropped the state’s ap­peal in 1999.

That’s when Propo­si­tion 187 died.

In body, if maybe not in spirit.

It’s a ques­tion I ask al­most ev­ery­one I’ve in­ter­viewed about all of this in re­cent months: Did Propo­si­tion 187, in some odd way, ac­tu­ally win?

Trump stirred mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to elect him with words that ac­tu­ally make Wilson’s rhetoric against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion a gen­er­a­tion ago seem al­most tame by com­par­i­son. The an­swers I got were mixed. “I don’t have to like Trump, but I like what he does” against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, said Bar­bara Ki­ley. “We needed a junk­yard dog. We needed some­body who could repo your car and not even think about it the next day.”

“You know, Nixon used to talk about the silent ma­jor­ity,” said Peter Nuñez, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney who helped ham­mer out the lan­guage of Propo­si­tion 187. To­day, he’s chair­man of the board of direc­tors for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, a con­tro­ver­sial group that fa­vors strong re­stric­tions against both il­le­gal and le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. “I think that silent ma­jor­ity still ex­ists, and that’s why Trump got elected. And im­mi­gra­tion was a big part of that.”

For the peo­ple forged in the fight against Propo­si­tion 187, there’s ex­as­per­a­tion. This again? Yet it’s be­cause of their me­mories that they re­main con­fi­dent that Trump too shall pass.

Cor­rea said he thinks Trump will build some mo­men­tum by crit­i­ciz­ing im­mi­grants. But he be­lieves that, in the end, the na­tional Repub­li­can Party will find as Pyrrhic a vic­tory in fol­low­ing him as the Cal­i­for­nia GOP found with Propo­si­tion 187.

“[It] mo­ti­vated us to do more, to take ac­tion,” he said. “To go to col­lege to be­come pro­fes­sion­als.”

Ev­ery year, Cor­rea vis­its the state Capi­tol in Sacra­mento with the lat­est class of the Chi­cano Latino Youth Lead­er­ship Project, or CLYLP. It’s the group he be­longed to when he first heard about Propo­si­tion 187. Cor­rea is now pres­i­dent of the non­profit.

“When I went to the con­fer­ence in ’94, I sat in the Assem­bly for it.

And I re­mem­ber see­ing two, maybe three Span­ish sur­names. I re­mem­ber Art Tor­res, maybe [Richard] Polanco and [Richard] Alar­con … maybe.”

“But now,” he con­tin­ued, “I went back, and I counted 36 names. So you talk about im­pact. You talk about a change. I mean, I’m look­ing at this board of leg­is­la­tors, I’m like, ‘There it is. It’s right there.’ ”

At his of­fice at Sad­dle­back High, Cor­rea keeps a let­ter that Wilson sent to CLYLP in 1994 of­fer­ing his “best wishes” for all at­ten­dees. Sacra­mento, he promised, “will pro­vide you with an op­por­tu­nity to learn about the po­lit­i­cal process in Cal­i­for­nia first­hand.”

“Lit­tle did he know,” Cor­rea said with a laugh.

Save for the downed fence, it was as if noth­ing had hap­pened at

Ana­heim High the day af­ter the early Novem­ber Propo­si­tion 187 walk­out.

For nearly all of my class­mates who par­tic­i­pated, it would be their first and last demon­stra­tion. They went on to nor­mal, work­ing-class lives — teach­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers, city jobs, the mil­i­tary. In­deed, when I reached out to some on so­cial me­dia and asked whether I could quote them about their me­mories, they de­clined.

They had done their job. Liv­ing fruit­ful lives was a di­rect re­pu­di­a­tion against what Propo­si­tion 187 rep­re­sented.

Life moved on for me af­ter the walk­outs too. Noth­ing changed for my fam­ily or even my un­doc­u­mented friends, so I fig­ured the bat­tle was over.

I paid no at­ten­tion to Propo­si­tion 187’s limbo in the courts, or the brew­ing Latino po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion.

If any­thing, I wanted to stay away from any­thing Mex­i­can or po­lit­i­cal. I dreamed of mov­ing to south Orange County and liv­ing in a gated com­mu­nity, far away from any prob­lems.

“We [Lati­nos] be­came vot­ers,” Glo­ria Molina said. As an L.A. County su­per­vi­sor, she re­ceived hun­dreds of racist phone calls and hate mail for pub­licly op­pos­ing Propo­si­tion 187. “Ev­ery­body woke up and said, ‘It passed. It shouldn’t have passed,’ and then did some­thing about it.”

“Pete Wilson trans­formed us all,” said Lisa Gar­cia Bedolla, vice provost for grad­u­ate stud­ies at UC Berke­ley. The Downey na­tive has writ­ten mul­ti­ple schol­arly ar­ti­cles, stud­ies and books about the propo­si­tion’s im­pact on Lati­nos who grew up in the era. “I don’t know if he knows that, and I don’t know if that’s what he wants to be his legacy, but that’s how it is.”

But in 1999, when Ana­heim Union High School Dis­trict trustees were go­ing to vote on whether they should sue Mex­ico for $50 mil­lion for ed­u­cat­ing the chil­dren of im­mi­grants here il­le­gally, I was the first per­son to of­fer com­ments. Hun­dreds of peo­ple had crammed into the dis­trict’s board­room, in­clud­ing some of Propo­si­tion 187’s au­thors.

All I saw, on tele­vi­sion and in front of me, was hate against peo­ple like me. It was Propo­si­tion 187 all over again.

But now, I was ready to step up to that fence.

Bob Carey Los Angeles Times

STU­DENTS from Belmont High School wave f lags and shout protests from the steps of Los Angeles City Hall af­ter walk­ing out of school to rally against Propo­si­tion 187 in Novem­ber 1994.

Damian Do­var­ganes AP

CAL­I­FOR­NIA Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997.

HIGH SCHOOL stu­dents gather in Plaza Park in Oxnard to protest Propo­si­tion 187 on Oct. 28, 1994. Many Lati­nos, in­clud­ing le­gal res­i­dents, saw the ini­tia­tive as an ex­is­ten­tial threat and par­tic­i­pated in some of the largest protests Cal­i­for­nia had seen since the Viet­nam War.

Lori She­p­ler Los Angeles Times

ABOUT 70,000 pro­test­ers rally against Prop. 187 at L.A. City Hall on Oct. 16, 1994. The state known for Richard Nixon and Ron­ald Rea­gan was on the road to be­com­ing a pro­gres­sive pow­er­house.

RON PRINCE, the spark be­hind what be­came Prop. 187, ar­gues with a woman about the ini­tia­tive as me­dia mem­bers look on.

Bruce K. Huff Los Angeles Times

Richard Derk Los Angeles Times

LAPD OF­FI­CERS ar­rest a stu­dent pro­tester dur­ing a demon­stra­tion against Propo­si­tion 187 in Van Nuys on Oct. 28, 1994, while oth­ers in the back­ground move pro­test­ers away from the street.

Robert Durell Los Angeles Times

Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

FOR MANY young Lati­nos, Prop. 187 awak­ened an ac­tivist spirit that hasn’t waned. Above, stu­dents from Mon­roe High run to­ward po­lice block­ing ac­cess to Van Nuys High on Oct. 28, 1994.

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