Proposition 187’s real impact: A generation that will never forget

By Christian Arana, Special to CALmatters

I was 6 in 1994, but Proposition 187 from that year had a profound effect on my life. It led me to a career to fight for immigrant families like my own.

In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson was in a heated reelection race.

To address a staggering economy, the governor scapegoated immigrants for causing California’s economic woes, and promulgated Proposition 187 as the solution.

For California to bounce back, so thought Gov. Wilson, the state needed to deny “illegal aliens” access to education and health care.  

That kind of exclusionary language angered me and motivated my participation in one of the largest marches against Proposition 187 in Los Angeles in October 1994.

As I saw it, these people weren’t “aliens.” They were my parents and neighbors who made my neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley a joyful, vibrant place.

To a 6-year-old child, the question was simple: How could a government deny a human being the right to an education or health care just because they didn’t have proper documentation to live in this country?

Fast forward 25 years, and California is in a much different place.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is in conversations to expand health care to undocumented young adults up to age 26.

When only 11 Latinos served in the California Legislature in 1994, Sacramento in 2019 has its largest class of Latino legislators at 33.

This progress is a testament to the civic engagement of California’s Latino community. They are actions that went beyond marches and high-school walkouts. 

Following the passage of Proposition 187, groups such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights undertook the arduous process of engaging immigrants to become citizens and to participate in elections.

When that wasn’t enough, Latinos ran for office and won. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles and many other elected officials cite Proposition 187 as the reason for their interest in pursuing public service.

Today, I sit as the policy director for the state’s only foundation focused on unleashing the civic power of California’s Latino community. I also know that despite all the progress, full political power for Latinos eludes us.

Voter registration gaps between whites and Latinos jeopardize our community’s participation in the March 2020 presidential primary. California possesses the largest potential Latino voting bloc in the nation at 7.7 million eligible Latino voters. But it’s imperative that every eligible Latino registers and votes.

We can have a pivotal role in deciding the strongest candidate who will face off President Trump in the general election.

If we vote in the next election, we can beat back anti-immigrant policies, including the threat of a citizenship question on the next census. Such a question could undermine our community’s ability to get counted and achieve full political representation.

With major pieces of legislation like comprehensive immigration reform hopefully up for a vote in the next decade, fully counting Latinos in the next census can ensure that our state has the loudest voice on these bills in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Proposition 187 taught us that anti-immigrant rhetoric may win in the short-term, but it ultimately is a losing strategy.

In Los Angeles recently, we at the Latino Community Foundation hosted a historic gathering of leaders who fought against Proposition 187. Among the speakers was former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León who credited the proposition with his political awakening. De León said enough and acted. In 2020, we can all do it too again, and we must.


Christian Arana  is Latino Community Foundation policy director, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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