The Demise of Prop 187 and
the Ongoing War on Immigrants

Revolutionary Worker #1018, August 15, 1999

In 1994 the state of California passed Proposition 187--a heartless measure that called for shutting out many immigrants from schools and hospitals and turning teachers and doctors into snitches for the Migra.

Last month, on July 29, most provisions of Proposition 187 were struck down through a court-approved mediation between California Governor Gray Davis and civil rights groups. The only parts of 187 that remain are those mandating stiffer penalties for false IDs. The reversal of Prop 187 reflects differences within the ruling class over how to deal with the question of immigration. But it is also the result of powerful and broad resistance by Latinos and others against this law and the whole war on immigrants.

Proposition 187 was the product of a racist and demagogic electoral campaign spearheaded by then Governor Pete Wilson. The pro-187 forces blamed immigrants for unemployment, cuts in social services and other problems of the capitalist system. Proposition 187 called for denying undocumented immigrants and their children many basic rights--including schooling and non-emergency health care. It mandated that local police, health care workers, teachers and social service workers check on the immigration status of everyone they came in contact with, including children--and report undocumented people to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

A full implementation of this shameful law would have meant a major intensification of anti-immigrant repression: Immigrant mothers arrested and possibly deported for bringing their sick children to hospitals. Kids hounded out of public schools and denied an education, just because they don't have some legal papers. Undocumented people driven deeper into the shadows, subject to even more harassment, threats, intimidation and brutality by police and INS agents. The chilling scenario reminded many people of the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany during the run-up to the concentration camps.

Within days of its passage Prop 187 was challenged in court by Latino and civil rights organizations. In November 1994, a federal judge issued an injunction to stop its implementation. The judge's decision was not based on opposition to the anti-immigrant content of 187 but on a legal technicality--that the federal government has sole jurisdiction over immigration matters, and individual states can not infringe on this. Wilson and the California government appealed the injunction, but this appeal was denied in a 1998 district court ruling. Rather than continuing to appeal (as pro-187 forces demanded) or dropping any appeal (as anti-187 groups wanted), newly elected Democrat Governor Gray Davis submitted the case to federal mediation. The July 29 decision by the mediator confirmed earlier court rulings against Prop 187.

Proposition 187 was the first of a wave of initiatives, pushed by powerful bourgeois forces in California, targeting Latino immigrants and other oppressed people. It was followed by Proposition 209, eliminating affirmative action programs, and Proposition 227, outlawing bilingual education. These measures were aimed at further criminalizing immigrants as well as creating a climate of fear, repression and intimidation directed at the Latino masses broadly.

A new report by the National Council of La Raza points out that because of anti-immigrant measures like 187, "The whole community's legal status and civil rights were called into question. Such political propaganda opened the door for extremists and others to encourage and even condone hate violence against Hispanics because, the reasoning goes, they are either not legally in this country, they take advantage of the nation's laws at the expense of other Americans, or they are uninterested in being productive and faithful citizens of this country because they do not learn the language." The study points out, "The perpetrators of these crimes are not just traditional or most commonly-known hate groups.... Now, they might also include those in law enforcement..."

People's Resistance--the System's Response

Proposition 187 was met with fierce and courageous resistance by the people. Protests ripped through the streets of Los Angeles and other cities. Students walked out of schools all over the state. A few days before the vote, over 100,000 marched in L.A.--the biggest march in Southern California history. A thousand garment workers left the sweatshops and headed to downtown L.A. under revolutionary banners. Teachers and health care workers by the thousands signed pledges announcing their intention to defy the law.

This mass upsurge caused great concern within the power structure. Proposition 187 was polarizing California in a way that the rulers definitely did not like: Not only were there many thousands of angry Latino masses in the streets--but many professional and middle class people were taking the side of the oppressed and openly expressing their willingness to break the law. Some of this political mobilization has been channeled into electoral activity--including the election of Gray Davis and other Democratic politicians. But the movement against 187 sparked new forces, new alliances and new consciousness into motion in struggle against the system, especially among the youth--and the effects of this continue to be felt today.

Besides ruling class worries about the response from the masses, there are a number of other factors behind the decision to back off Prop 187. For one thing, many of 187's anti-immigrant provisions are now part of federal law. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Both were inspired in part by Prop 187. And both measures restrict the eligibility of some people who are not citizens for federal, state and local benefits and services. And they make undocumented immigrants ineligible for most non-emergency public aid. The New York Times wrote: "Governor Davis stressed today that while Proposition 187 might have been `struck down,' much of its intent was covered by Federal immigration laws passed in 1996..."

Certain ruling class forces also worry that whipping up an openly anti-immigrant climate could hurt the U.S.'s important economic ties with Mexico and the need for immigrant labor. These were major issues of discussion when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo visited California this past May. And some pro-system critics of Prop 187 fear that such laws will impact negatively on other aspects of the repressive machinery. For example, some critics of 187 point out that making local police into immigration agents will undermine "neighborhood policing," because many people will be afraid to cooperate with cops.

Stop the War on Immigrants

The rulers have been forced to take a step back with Proposition 187. But the system continues to wage a war on immigrants. Much of the anti-immigrant legislation of the mid-1990s remains part of federal law. And Prop 187's provisions on harsher sentences for selling or using false IDs still stands. Governor Davis, who claimed to be against divide-and-conquer politics and race-baiting during his campaign, refused to condemn Prop 187 or simply let it die. In fact he claimed that the mediated settlement embodied the "spirit" of Prop 187. He has also continued to support the anti-affirmative action Prop 209 and so far refused to remove the ban on issuing driver's licenses to the undocumented. Leading government officials--Democrats and Republicans--are not about to abandon their program of punishment for the masses, including the targeting of immigrants. And backers of Prop 187 are still trying to find ways to have it implemented.

The new study by the National Council of La Raza points out, "There has been an increase in both employment and housing discrimination against Hispanic workers and their families. In addition, preliminary tracking of data on violence against Latinos ...suggests that the number of hate violence incidents has been on the rise."

The militarization of the southern border continues, as the U.S. pours more weapons, surveillance equipment and Migra personnel into the area. San Jose Mercury News (7/26) reports that according to U.S. Justice Department data, "The prosecution of immigration cases is the fastest-growing segment of federal law enforcement"--even surpassing drug arrests. "Thousands of undocumented immigrants, many of them with past criminal records, are prosecuted under the reentry laws each year in San Diego alone," the Mercury reports. Immigration arrests have doubled since 1992. In Northern California there were 20 such cases seven years ago--last year there were 166. "Prison terms are getting longer and more frequent for immigration offenses.... Defendants convicted of illegally returning to the U.S. typically spend at least two years in a federal prison before they are deported."

The people's struggle played a critical role in the demise of Prop 187. Now the struggle must continue against all the system's outrageous assaults on immigrants and the masses of Latino people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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