California has a tortured history of conflict over immigration, giving it a huge stake in President Joe Biden’s effort to overhaul immigration policy.
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The anthropological history of California is one of periodic waves of migration beginning at least 20,000 years ago when nomadic peoples crossed a land bridge from Asia into what is now Alaska and moved southward along the Pacific Coast.
It’s also a history of friction, sometimes violent, between current residents and newcomers who, like those first pioneers from Asia, sought better lives.
The latest chapter may now be written as newly inaugurated President Joe Biden attempts to undo the nativist policies of predecessor Donald Trump and create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
If successful, Biden’s reform package would have its greatest impact on California, home to perhaps 3 million such immigrants living in constant fear of arrest and deportation by federal agents, despite the state government’s efforts to quasi-legalize their status.
The state’s supportive attitude toward its undocumented residents, most of whom came from Latin America, is itself a very recent development. Just a quarter century ago and by a 3-to-2 margin, California voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to deny public benefits, including educating children, to those residents.
Proposition 187 reflected California’s history of white cultural supremacy that began with subjugation of the state’s first residents after Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo “discovered” the land by sailing into what he later described as a “very good closed port,” now known as San Diego Bay on Sept. 28, 1542.
There were at least 150,000 Native Americans living in California at that time but by the late 19th century, only a few thousand remained, mostly living in abject poverty on reservations.
California’s first elected governor, Peter Burnett, openly advocated genocide, telling the Legislature in 1851 that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct…”
“The Indian was not kept in formal slavery, but he was exterminated at the wish and the expense of the Legislature, and for years in the southern part of the state, under the guise of penal labor, Indians were hawked from the auction-block,” the late historian Kevin Starr wrote of 19th century California.
California’s nativist attitudes were not confined to Native Americans. The 19th century saw importation of laborers from China and Japan and concurrent efforts to prevent them from gaining citizenship and acquiring property that continued well into the 20th century. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans, including citizens, were rounded up and clapped into concentration camps.
Immigration from Mexico, both legal and illegal, in the late 20th century spawned the conflict that Biden now wants to resolve — one with an ironic twist. Initially, opposition came not from the political right personified by Trump, but from the left.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the nascent farm labor movement headed by Cesar Chavez openly demanded that federal authorities crack down on immigrants, contending that they were undermining union organization.
In 1973, the United Farm Workers union set up a “wet line” along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent immigrants from entering illegally and in a 1979 U.S. Senate hearing, Chavez denounced federal officials for refusing to arrest and deport them.
In the 1970s, during Jerry Brown’s first governorship, two high-profile appointees, Health and Welfare Secretary Mario Obledo and Resources Secretary Huey Johnson waged a sharp public debate over immigration. Johnson reflected the prevailing sentiment of environmental activists that immigration fueled high population growth that would, he said, be the “ultimate disaster.”
That’s the tortured history that frames California’s immense stake in Biden’s effort to settle the immigration issue.