My Mistake On Proposition 187

I have waited to confess error. I was a civil rights activist once. In summer 1994, I put in around-the-clock effort fighting California Proposition 187, what started as the “Save Our State” movement. The “no” side that I joined wished to maintain education and health care, among other public benefits, for “illegal” immigrants. We lost. Perhaps it was inevitable.

Convinced that I had to contribute, I had given up my job as an associate at a downtown law firm. In the summer before I was to start a fellowship at Stanford University, teaching legal research and writing, I showed up at a non-profit to volunteer my services, full-time but unpaid. They took me on. I did just about everything you could do on a political campaign, from the debates in public forums and pre-internet media to the event organizing to the clerical tasks that somebody had to perform. As exhilarating as it was to be dedicated to a cause, it was demoralizing to see how perfectly a despised minority could be targeted through rhetoric and images.

A scholarly book came out a few years back memorializing our failed fight. My cameo appearance in its pages proved I was there. We were an unlikely coalition ranging from immigrants’ rights activists to local PTA leaders to labor organizers to a few businesspeople who believed human beings, even without papers, had rights.

Supporters of Proposition 187 usually were careful. They took pains to distinguish xenophobia from racism. I had not been exposed before to their reasoning. They explained it to me with a smile. They did not hate strangers; they only felt they had to take care of their own. They presumed I could not quarrel with them — aren’t we all partial toward “our people?”

The author of the study quoted me describing why our strategy was misguided. I confide a bit more now, claiming no more responsibility than is due, since I wish I could travel back in time to offer advice to myself. It might have made no difference. At least, though, I would have stood up and spoken out for principle, instead of, as I did, giving in to that temptation always present, to be pragmatic.

We advanced two arguments. These were calculated, too much so. We failed to call the proposal “racist.” We, the organizers of the official coalition in the San Francisco Bay Area, took pains to avoid doing that, even though others urged it and featured it as their central point. Our internal fights were as intense as any confrontation with a white nationalist on talk radio. The result was too reasonable for the situation.

The first argument we emphasized was basically that it was common sense to ensure education and health care for people who were undocumented. If you were rational you would realize everyone else would be worse off if they were not in school and not receiving treatment such as vaccinations (the “anti-vaxxers,” those opposed to childhood shots, had yet to become a political force).

This utilitarian balancing of costs and benefits had a profound failing that should have been obvious. It implied, essentially conceded, that the individuals who were “illegal” were not deserving on their own account. The message was all about self-interest: do not remove the social “safety net,” because you, suburban homeowner comfortable with the sense of belonging in the nation as it belongs to you, will be harmed. The people you regard as “others” are instrumental, a means to an end; provide them with a little bit, so you can enjoy, literally, the fruits of their labors.

The second argument was prescient. But it also was not successful. It was the warning not to be fooled. Yes, this ballot measure applied to only persons who could not establish beyond doubt their right to remain here, and who, in the popular imagination, had confirmed their offensive nature by entering in the first place. However, the next potential law would extend the same hostility to others, whether they had arrived in an appropriate manner, even been recruited to come.

Proposition 187 was a turning point. Society slid down the “slippery slope” immediately. After the California referendum followed the Congressional legislation that initiated a trend until DACA, of restricting entry and ratcheting up deportations. The bills that passed shared the same spirit, vicious despite the preemptive denial of prejudice, and, as predicted, it reached people who sought green cards as they were supposed to do. Meanwhile, the category of “illegal immigrant” was hardened. What had been a civil violation of law became a criminal one, not only technically but also colloquially. People, even those who had no culpability, had their status, the totality of their lives, defined by a single act, of “entry without inspection” in formal terms.

Nothing worked. Mentioning that the undocumented were members of families that were mixed highlighted that a whole population was involved. People who were not friends to the undocumented were not typically friends to husbands and wives of the undocumented either. There was an argument that seemed to have no effect. Telling people that what they wanted to do was unconstitutional elicited the reaction of at best “says who? says you?” There was another argument that was met with hostility. Reminding Asian Americans that they too were the subject of antipathy, that it was not Latinos alone, and that there had been a national record of excluding and discriminating against Asians and their American-born children alike, only angered Asian Americans, those among them who were sure they would be protected, for they pictured themselves to be “good” immigrants.

The “no” campaign in Southern California was criticized for its own moment of misjudgment: the parades where marchers waved the Mexican flag. Experts said that that did it. Even people who insisted that they might have been ambivalent looked at the masses carrying the representation of another sovereignty, and they declared their rage. It was the invasion they imagined. They were not appeased by the Star Spangled Banner being played with “a mariachi riff.”

Trying to be as objective as possible — I recommend to any Asian Americans who contact me about their experience of bias that any case they pursue must invoke not Asian pride but American principles — I am sympathetic. Mexican Americans (and their allies) did what any community would do facing attacks based on who they are, namely embrace identity all the more. I interpret their symbolism with tolerance, as expressing cultural affinity rather than political loyalty. Nonetheless, I do not doubt that the intervention backfired.

Proposition 187 was historic. Much has happened since then. I take heart in how attitudes have changed. People who defend the “Dreamers,” the young adults who came as children and know no other home, do so wholeheartedly.

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