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November 1994 - Proposition 187 Passes; Sparks Immigration Debate

Activists Protest Against Proposition 187
Activists protest against Proposition 187 in 1994. | Photo: Creative Commons License

On November 8, 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative prohibiting illegal immigrants from using public social services in the state, and touching off a 5-year legal battle over its constitutionality.

The initiative was proposed by State Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), who was concerned that California's 1.3 million illegal immigrants were costing the state some $3 billion annually by receiving social services and education for their children, a relevant figure in light of the recent economic downturn that affected California in the early 1990s. Republican Governor Pete Wilson, faced with a re-election bid in 1994, became a strong supporter of the measure, which also became a major issue in his race against Democratic State Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

Though polls indicated widespread support for the measure, the issue was divided heavily on partisan lines, with President Bill Clinton opposing the initiative, along with many Democratic candidates running in the November election.

Prop 187 sought to create a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit immigrants who were in this country illegally from using health care, public education, and other social services in California. Students, who were primarily Latino, organized protests at campuses around the state. Various local governments outside California opposed the measure, threatening to boycott the state. But despite outspoken opposition by many community leaders, civil rights groups, the California State PTA, the Roman Catholic Church, and other groups, voters approved the measure 59 to 41 percent. Both Wilson and State Attorney General Dan Lungren, another Republican who publicly supported the measure, also won their respective re-election bids.

Further protests ensued, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits in state court against the measure.

In 1997 Federal Judge Mariana Pfaelzer found Prop 187 as a state law was unconstitutional due to it infringing on the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction on any matters related to immigration. Governor Wilson appealed Pfaelzer's ruling, which took the matter to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in mid-1999, after Democratic Governor Gray Davis took charge, the he withdrew the appeal, which nullified the law.

Though the Proposition 187 saga ended, other states, including the neighboring states of Arizona and Nevada, have since passed their own version of Prop 187. But the measure's passage nonetheless galvanized the Latino vote in California, encouraging eligible voters, especially newly-naturalized citizens, who haven't yet already registered to vote, and registered voters who neglect to participate in the polls, to increase their level of democratic participation.

Echoes of Prop 187 still reverberate today in local legislation pertaining to illegal immigration, and the asylum of underage immigrant detainees in 2014.

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