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Proposition 187 Shook Latino Voters and Changed California Politics

Hundreds of Fullerton College students march through Fullerton, California protesting Proposition 187 on November 2, 1994. | Bruce Chambers / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images
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In 1994, Sandra Diaz was growing up in Escondido, a small city in northern San Diego mostly made up of recent immigrants that cleaned houses and worked in farms. She was 13 years old when she first heard about Proposition 187, a proposed initiative about people like her family that politicians were talking about in the news.

“I didn't fully understand what it was, but what I gathered was that it rejected entirely who I was, my mom, my dad and everyone I had grown up with”, she remembered in a recent interview.

One day, Sandra saw those videos on TV of people jumping the fence at the border, and the voice in it saying “they keep coming…”

A few months later, Latino kids from her school and most of the schools in the small city of Escondido walked out of class to protest the Proposition and the rejection of their families that it represented. Although she was a good kid that never ditched school, she walked out with dozens of her peers. 

Something similar happened in Los Angeles, Oakland, and many cities around the state, where thousands of students walked out in protest against the initiative. 

Protesters march against Proposition 187 in Fresno. | David Prasad / Creative Commons
Demonstrators march against Proposition 187 in Fresno. | David Prasad / Creative Commons

“There was some sort of dignity, that walking out together we were proud of being who we were”, she remembers, 25 years later. “That feeling of collective power stayed with me, and I felt like a spark inside."

Today, Sandra Diaz is a union leader, the political director of SEIU´s United Service Workers West.

Exactly 25 years ago, 59% of California voters passed the “Save Our State” initiative, better known as Proposition 187, which called for throwing undocumented children out of schools and hospitals and for teachers and nurses to become de-facto immigration agents.

Exit polling and subsequent studies showed a glaring polarization among the voting public: while the mostly white electorate supported the initiative almost two-to-one, Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state, strongly rejected it. 

Three out of four Latinos voted against it. Asians and African Americans were split. 

Republican Pete Wilson was reelected on the same day for his second and last term. He had followed another two-term Republican governor, George Deukmejian. 
In 1994, California was in the middle of a tremendous demographic shift. 

“The biggest demographic change in the state happened between 1980 and 2000,” said professor Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California (USC) Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII), in a recent interview. 

“California went from being two-thirds white to being about 47% non-white. The bulk of that increase happened in the Latino community,” he added.

In the early 1990s, when Pete Wilson was in his first term, a recession hit California. The state shed 800,000 jobs, the housing market collapsed, and a budget deficit of $15 billion led to a tax hike that didn't make Wilson popular within his party. 
Wilson then decided to support an initiative launched by a small but dedicated group of Orange County conservative activists. The Republican Party got on board and threw its backing and money into qualifying it and passing it. They saw it as a winner.

Republicans succeeded in reelecting Wilson and passing Prop. 187. But in the long run, they lost a lot of political power in California.

About 70,000 people protesting Proposition 187 in donwtown Los Angeles. | Korean Resource Center
About 70,000 people protesting Proposition 187 in donwtown Los Angeles. | Korean Resource Center / Creative Commons

Kevin De Leon was a teacher of English as a Second Language in 1994, the son of Guatemalan immigrants.

He helped organize a series of marches against Prop. 187 along with Fabian Nuñez and Juan José Gutiérrez, both of whom worked for a nonprofit called One Stop Immigration.

On Oct. 16, two weeks before the Nov. 8 elections, more than 70,000 mostly immigrant families, marched from East L.A. to Downtown Los Angeles, shocking even the organizers. 

It was, at that point, the largest march in the history of the city.

“People came out that couldn;t express their anger at the ballot box,” De Leon said. “The march became a symbolic ballot box. It was about dignity.

Then, Wilson campaign spokesman Dan Schnur said after the march that “those who are demonstrating represent a relatively small minority of Californians.”

De Leon now chuckles at that quote, while reading an old newspaper clip.

“One of them became the speaker of the assembly (Fabian Nuñez), the other Senate President Pro Tem of California,” he says.

For De Leon and many others, Prop. 187 was their political awakening; it was “the issue of a generation,” he says today.

Proposition 187 won at the ballot box, but it was challenged in federal court and found unconstitutional. Before it could reach the highest court of the land, newly elected Governor Gray Davis agreed with civil rights groups to drop the appeal, effectively killing the measure. 

Citizenship campaigns among immigrants and Latinos increased and so did voter registration of those groups. In 1996, Republicans lost the majority in the state assembly for the last time, and political scientists can map the uptick in Democratic elected officials and the decline of the California Republican party starting in the mid-90s. 

Pete Wilson remained an unpopular figure among Latinos for a very long time. 

Loyola Marymount University's professor of political sciences and Chicana/Chicano studies Fernando Guerra uses the example of his mom, who died barely a year ago and still would talk about Wilson as a devil. 

“You wanted to get my mom riled up, all you had to do was mention Pete Wilson,” he said. “And before 187 she was the most non-political non-participatory person, and it completely changed her whole attitude about politics.”

There was a time between 1996 and 2002 “when you could run a campaign against Pete Wilson and elect somebody into office,” recalls former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, now retired from politics.

People sign petitions to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, calling for "realistic and humane" immigration reform, as "No on Proposition 187" organizers launch a voter registration drive in 2006. | David McNew/
People sign petitions to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, calling for "realistic and humane" immigration reform. "No on Proposition 187" organizers launch a voter registration drive in 2006, urging immigrants to become citizens and register to vote. | David McNew/Getty Images

Fast forward to 2020. California is a sanctuary state, courtesy of a bill sponsored by Kevin de Leon, who was President pro-tempore of the California State Senate until he was termed out last year. Former L.A. congressman Xavier Becerra is California Attorney General and has sued the Trump administration over immigration, climate and many other issues more than 50 times. California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, has instituted same-day voter registration and other strategies to drive up the vote.

California has changed much since 1994. Recent statewide polling shows that the tables have turned. A 2019 poll by Public Policy Institute of California found that 58% of Californians support state and local governments in making their own policies, separate from the federal government, to protect the legal rights of undocumented immigrants.

The same poll found that 72% of Californians believe that immigrants, even the undocumented, are a benefit to the state.

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