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Raphe Sonenshein: Cold War Fears Weaponized Against Immigrants

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Raphe Sonenshein grew up in the Cold War era, where many people were afraid "that the Russians were coming” for the U.S. and its way of life and that they would unleash nuclear war.  He even remembers a satirical movie with that name “The Russians are coming.”

But in 1994, California politicians turned that fear — right after the Cold War ended — and gave it a local flavor, he says.  A similar type of rhetoric showed up in the campaign for Proposition 187, especially a very famous ad by Gov. Pete Wilson, which showed people running across the border from Mexico and a voice saying “they keep coming.”

“’They are on their way, they are coming '…I don't know if this was so brilliantly designed, but it was almost a perfect representation of moving the fears we had during the Cold War and simply picking them up by the scruff of the neck and putting them on immigrants from Mexico and saying ‘Yes, they are coming.’”

By that time, Sonenshein was already a seasoned political observer, but he thought the ad was particularly strong.

"I didn't think much could shock me in American politics anymore; it was frightening in so many ways,” he remembers. "It was clearly designed to elicit not just a public policy concern that we're spending much money on services for undocumented residents but about a threat of them coming, an aggressive image of people coming.”

It was a new explanation for anxiety, he says, at a moment when California was being battered by an economic recession coming out of the end of the Cold War — with deep cuts at the aerospace industry — with increasing demographic change, social upheaval and “alienation of different types of communities.”

It's hard to understand 1994 in California in the context of today, he says. Neither party in the 1980s or 1990s was as anti- or pro-immigrant as they are now.

"Republicans were not so anti-immigrant, and Democrats were divided over immigration because many worried about the impact on it from unions and union membership,” Sonenshein remembers. “Pete Wilson was a moderate and had previously been seen as a U.S. Senator favorable to increasing the number of workers coming in from Mexico.”

In this interview for the documentary “187: the Rise of the Latino Vote,” Sonenshein, who today is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, explains the trajectory of California, its political parties and communities through one of their most turbulent times. He also explores what all of that means today. 

“On the flip side of all of this, Proposition 187 got a majority vote in California, but not a single one of the current policies in the area of immigration would win a majority vote in the U.S. right now…and yet, our electoral system does not always reward majority support.”

Sonenshein, a native of New Jersey, is the author of three books on Los Angeles politics and government, served as Executive Director of the Los Angeles (Appointed) Charter Reform Commission and was Chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at CSU Fullerton.

He received his B.A. from Princeton and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University.

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187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

The fight against Prop 187 awakened Latino political power, dramatically changing California politics.
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