Twenty years after Prop. 187

Twenty years ago, Californians approved the highly controversial Proposition 187, which deprived undocumented immigrants of health care services and K-12 education, among others. Federal courts later declared aspects of the atrocious initiative unconstitutional in such a way that it would fall into oblivion.

Now, in an act of legislative cleanup, Democratic state Senators Kevin de León and Ricardo Lara introduced SB 3496, a bill that eliminates from statutes and codes any trace of what was added as a result of the ballot initiative. The idea is to completely eradicate this proposal.

It is fine for Prop 187 to completely disappear, even when none of its provisions were actually applied. However, it should not disappear from the pages of the history of Latinos in California.

The ballot initiative, back in its time, fit into the re-election plans of then-Governor Pete Wilson, who bet that the anti-immigrant initiative would mobilize enough voters to re-elect him.

What was not foreseen then was that the temporary victory of Wilson and his 187 would lead to a new era in California that would condemn the state’s Republican Party to become a diminished minority. The defeat this year of Minuteman Tim Donnelly in the party’s primary for governor is a positive sign, even if his presence reflects the confrontations that immigration still causes in the state organization.

Prop 187 mainly raised awareness among an immigrant generation about the need for political participation. Demonstrations turned into votes that punished anti-immigrant candidates and elected politicians—Latinos and non-Latinos—who understood the importance of demographic changes in California. Prop 187 changed California, although in a very different way than what its authors intended.