Gil Cedillo | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Gil Cedillo and the Fight to Return Driver’s Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants

Gil Cedillo: I'm Gil Cedillo. I'm a member of the Los Angeles City Council. I represent the first councilmanic district. It is perhaps the most immigrant district in the nation. It's a district that has large pockets of poverty and is reflective of the country in terms of the divide between wealth and poverty. It exists in my district as well because I have some really high-end communities like Mount Washington and Highland Park, one of the top hipster communities of the nation. At the same time, I have a very immigrant dense communities like the Pico-Union area or the Westlake area of Los Angeles. My policies and my efforts and my work on behalf of those communities is reflected in the policies that I promote.

In the early '90s, I was living what I thought was my best life. I was head of Local 660 SEIU. It was its largest public sector, local, this side of New York. It represented 40,000 Los Angeles county workers. I had been at the ham of that union in my third year. In 1991, when I took over the leadership of the local, we had an 11-day strike called Rolling Thunder, and it began to set a culture for how that union would operate in the politics of Southern California. We began to utilize a labor community strategy, a very public high-profile strategy. In 1994, I was in my third year of leading that local. We were focused on getting a new governor for the state of California. We were going to be very involved in Kathleen Brown's campaign. That's what I was doing in 1994.

There had been a transfer for some period of time particularly with the immigration reform in the mid-80s. Even before that this ongoing integration of immigrants into the workforce into important industries of the economy and light manufacturing and the service economy, clearly they were beginning to permeate and play a major role in the success of those economies. At the same time, there was a decline, a major decline of the American economy, particularly in heavy manufacturing and in aerospace.

Concurrently with immigrants moving into other important sectors of the economy, there was extraordinary job loss. Immigrants were not responsible for that. Those were policy decisions and products of the global economy, but nevertheless, they were scapegoated during that time period for the job loss that was becoming evident throughout the state and throughout the nation.

I remember very vividly the early discussions of Proposition 187. I remember distinctly that many of my old colleagues, people I grew up with, friends of mine who were pro-immigrant activists when we were all in college in the '70s, that they were talking about this Proposition 187, the Save Our State initiative, as it was called initially at the time, and that there was a demonstration in Downtown Los Angeles.

Some of my close friends, [unintelligible 00:03:44], who was the leader of the Machinists Union, [unintelligible 00:03:47], his wife at the time who worked for me, were going to go Downtown to see this demonstration and invited me to join them. I remember driving down with them to the demonstration. I was impressed by two things. One was the size of the march, it was very large and it seemed very large for a march that didn't seem to have a lot of publicity at the time.

Also impressed by the lack of infrastructure, professional infrastructure for that size of a march. They didn't have a stage. They didn't have a very large PA system. It seemed odd that such a large march and rally with so many people didn't arrive to a place where there was a infrastructure in place for them. I worked my way to the front of the podium and said hello to some of my colleagues, Juan Jose Gutierrez, who was the executive director of One Stop Immigration, one of the sponsors of the march, and invited them to join me at my local and said, "We'd be happy to work with you. We have PA systems. We use them for our demonstrations. We have a lot of resources at our local. We'd be happy to work with you, and we can share those resources with you." I remember that Saturday very vividly.

We were all very young and young at heart, we remained, but we were all very, very young. I was happy to see Juan Jose. We had been colleagues and very close while we were in college. After that, we remained very close, but we didn't see each other as much. I went to law school and I was in the labor movement. That was my world and my world was in the public sector. I didn't interface with the immigrant workforce much at all. I didn't see them as much as I had wished to. I was happy to see them as I was to see Nativo and Burt.

I remember I invited them to come over because we were in the spring, we were getting ready for our efforts in the primary election. We were going to select who our candidates were, whether it was Tom Hayden, John Garamendi or Kathleen Brown, we were very active in preparing for that. I invited them to my office on a Saturday afternoon. We sat there and talked about what I was doing and how we could help and what I thought were the advantages of them working with labor.

They brought these two young, enthusiastic young men, Kevin de León and Fabiana Núñez, much younger than they are today. Very modest. I remember we were sitting around and we had a big work table in my office and the big couches. My office was really large. It was like a lounge in some respects. We had a big bowl of fruit and snacks on the table and I said, "Help yourself and then go in the next room if you want some coffee or tea. Go ahead and help yourself with any beverage."

They seemed a little hesitant like they were worried they were going to be charged for the snacks. I said, "No, no, no, help yourself. You work in the labor movement. This is what resources are available." I remember inviting them to join us in the labor movement because you could see immediately how bright both of them were. I said, "No, no, you guys should come and should think about working for us." I go, "I have an interest in feeding you. My interest is that I want in the future for you guys to join us in the labor movement because I could see that you guys are obviously bright and very smart and committed." They were not interested in mainstream politics that I represented to them at the time. Again, we were all, as I said, very, very young and of course, our futures would change.

For us, it was obviously anti-immigrant. It was a desperate act by not unlike what we see in the nation today, where there are people who are struggling with the changes in the economy, struggling with changes in demographics, find a comfort in racism and nativism, and who look to that in terms of trying to gain a political advantage. We were very confident and understood for decades that immigrants played a vital role in the economy and that they didn't take jobs.

In many instances, they help create, make businesses prosperous, and in essence, create jobs. That they paid taxes like all immigrants, since the beginning of this nation, came to this country to improve their personal lives, but more so to improve the lives of their children, and that they were very optimistic people who wanted to contribute. We had confidence in that worldview, but it was being confronted by a movement that was trying to exploit the difficult changes in the economy at that time.

At that time, there wasn't much involvement or interest in the anti-immigrant activities taking place emerging in the state during that time period. It was a very difficult economy. We were in a recession, there were going to be cutbacks and unions were still, in many instances, following the old policies of the AFL-CIO, so they weren't pro-immigrant and very progressive, other than those unions that were trying to organize immigrants in the industries that they were in. For example, the janitors obviously was a immigrant-based workforce. They were focused obviously on immigrants.

HERE, the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee Union, was also focused on organizing immigrants but they had had their own internal battles. They had to sue their own union to make sure that the contracts could be written in Spanish, that the meetings would be conducted in Spanish. The unions were not leading the charge in defense of immigrants at that time.

There was emerging leadership in the labor movement. There were young people who had come out of the immigrant rights groups, Maria Elena Durazo, for example, with HERE, Mike Garcia, where the janitors union was emerging. I had a history working with them in college in the pro-immigrant group, CASA, and had worked with Bert Corona and Nativo Lopez. There was a group of young people who are now in leadership posts of unions, who had a very pro-immigrant perspective. This was contrary to other unions within our internationals and other locals who didn't share that perspective.

There was also people like Cristina Ramirez, who was leading the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. There were various new leaders emerging who were pro-immigrant and saw the demographic change and could see that this was going to be important to organize them. It's a very critical moment in the history of the American labor movement because for the first time, there are union leaders of significant positions, as leaders have large locals and important locals, who are advocating for organizing immigrants. This is a major shift in the policy of the American labor movement.

It was a precursor to an official policy change that took place a few years later and much of it as a result of seeing that the immigrant workforce could become a very pro-immigrant workforce, militant advocate for their own rights, and play a role in organizing and in organized labor as a force because organized labor had been on a steady decline since the early to mid-70s as the structure of the economy changed, and as the unions were unable to be nimble enough to expand into other sectors or to anticipate the changes.

Labor was in a steady decline and now you are seeing the emergence of unions that were gaining workers because they were organizing the immigrant workforce. There was a conflict, there were in fact, some members, leadership people, within my union who were opposed to our efforts to defeat 187 and opposed to our strategy and tactics. Our strategy was to build a broad-based coalition, built around labor as the leading force, utilizing the resources of the labor movement, but then bringing in other groups like faith-based organizations and the church, bringing in other groups like the immigrant rights groups like [unintelligible 00:13:02] and One Stop Immigration, obviously, working with people in the legal community.

That was our strategy and we actually had the belief that we could beat this by mobilizing democratic forces to beat this proposition, and also mobilize these forces around Kathleen Brown's campaign, to energize her campaign. She was leading in the polls significantly at the time. History demonstrates that we were off, that we didn't have enough of a base, of membership, that the demographics weren't as we had thought, and that people we underestimated and I think we saw this again recently in the presidential, underestimated the fear, the uncertainty that was taking place in the broader society because of the changes in the economy.

The point is this, is that, not all of labor was agreed on these approaches, but that there was enough people there to lead and push our efforts which ultimately was embraced a few years later by the entire labor movement and with the national policy change, and with the initiatives throughout the country to organize the immigrant workforce. Organized labor is a small part of the American workforce, in American society, but it's very powerful.

It's very powerful because it has a long, rich history. It has a history of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds. It has an important place in the economy. One of the areas that makes it very powerful is that as an institution that has incredible resources so that the membership, through their dues pays to sustain the union movement. By bringing the union movement into these other grassroots and community-based organizations, you're bringing a lot of power, you're bringing expertise with the media, you're bringing the experiences of the union leaders into the realm of politics, and those political relationships that exist with labor, and then you're bringing infrastructure, you're bringing hard cash to pay for buses, or for grand stages or for permits to great marches and demonstrations, you're bringing printing presses at the time before social media, printing presses were very important, you're bringing incredible expertise. Bringing the labor movement into this other movement on behalf of immigrants was really powerful, it played a major role that I think has been under-appreciated in the review and the thoughts in terms of what role did labor play against 187.

It was a turning point, I would say for the immigrant rights movement, but also a turning point for labor and it was a historic moment where both of these intersected on behalf of their interests. There was a belief that somehow you see it in today's current discussion about who should lead the Democratic Party against Donald Trump. Is it the left or is it the center? The same discussions, in many respects, were taking place at that time. Should we be modest and moderate and try to maybe not talk about immigrants that much and downplay the role, or should we be very affirmative about it and make clear what the choices are, and what people's decisions are going to-- how those decisions will impact their lives and the role that immigrants play in our society?

We were just very affirmative about it. We thought that we should build a very broad coalition, as I've stated before, and be very open about it. We thought that there was a noble message that we could construct about building a broad coalition based upon values of integration, about the contributions of immigrants, the immigrant heritage, the forward-looking nature of immigrants, that we can build a message around that and that we can mobilize people and through the incredible resources that we had, that we could mobilize people.

Others simply didn't share that, they relied on the polls, they relied on the more conservative voters that they were focused on. I think electorally they may have been right, electorally, but I think in terms of a social movement and societal changes that we were obviously, absolutely right. I think history has shown that. We may both have been right, in some reflection. There are definitely people who were not for it within my union as well. There were people who were hell-bent on making sure that we didn't have the march and the march didn't get support and who wanted to marginalize it.

It was very unfortunate, and it was really difficult for me personally, during that time period, not to have the full support of my union at the time, when we were such a leading force and contributor within SEIU. Our union was one of its biggest stars, and was making great contributions both to our members, but to SEIU. Not to have their full support at that time was disconcerting, but not discouraging, we went forward nonetheless and went forward with our march. It was historic, something that we're proud of. It was making history and we did that.

There were other forces in our society, democratic forces. The speaker of the state assembly, the leadership at Allen County, the leadership at the Los Angeles Unified School Board who were-- and prominent leaders trying to discourage people from working with us and participating with us. We found that to be unfortunate, but that's not unlike what's happening today in our efforts to see who will lead our nation in the future.

As I said, and we may both have been right and there's a distinction between this electoral strategy and a broader strategy of trying to move our society forward. The debate that's taking place today in the Democratic Party with respect who you go with, a Bernie Sanders, or do you go with a more conservative Joe Biden? The challenge that exists is, there's incredible stress in our society and people are having job loss and their privileges in the society are changing. It's stressful. Then we have a person in the White House who's saying, "And it's stressful because of immigrants. Immigrants are taking a job, they're responsible for the decline of your circumstance and why nothing works in government," et cetera.

Immigrants are scapegoated at the highest levels of our country. The first time the campaign for the presidency began specifically attacking immigrants. There's a small part of the population that is convinced of that. That was also true in 1994. The demographics and polling was that there was this voter in Encino they call the Encino man or the Encino voter.

We had to pander to him. We had to accommodate him. Our perspective was that, no, you need to broaden the base. You need to persuade people and inspire people. I still feel the same way. I think that for the Democrats going forward that it's about-- you need to address those concerns and there's enough facts to address those concerns because it's not based on truth or facts.

The fact of the matter is that there are more voters to organize. That there's a broader base to organize and that there's no reason why the Democrats can't amplify their base. That their strategy should be amplified and persuade and inspire and that we can take back this nation. That tension existed in 1994 around immigrants and it exists today around our core values in terms of how we see the nation going forward. Immigration is central to that, whether it's DACA or in TPS, whether it's immigration reform, that is something that's central and key and we need to recognize that and continue to advocate for that.

We were able to, for example, immediately go set up meetings with Richard Alatorre who I think was head of the Public Safety Committee. He was then brought in by the LAPD to sit with us and for us to lay out the ground rules, to lay out our planning. Again, working with Richard Alatorre and Mike Hernandez, making sure we had the infrastructure in place. Enough restrooms, enough spaces for the public to get respite along the way. That's a product that what the labor movement brings. It's a certain legitimacy at that time that they brought to all the other efforts from the community going forward.

We worked with the LAPD. It's a little tough initially because some of the activists aren't comfortable with that, aren't used to sitting down, don't have the confidence yet to sit down with the LAPD or with other institutions to say, "Look, here's our objective. Let's figure out how we can work to accomplish our objective and then let's do that." We were able to monitor and sit down in those negotiations and make out a plan that everybody agreed to and fortunately that everybody respected.

We've done marches our whole lives and so we were very strict about certain things like no provocations, no alcohol at the event. These are very serious ventures for us. I was very adamant that we have this type of collaboration and cooperation with the city because I represent 40,000 members which is 40,000 families. They wouldn't take lightly to us getting them involved in some activities hat would result in the types of other problems people that may have had in the past or subsequent working with the LAPD.

It was obviously very exciting. I remember the time where I was living in Pasadena, so many people coming to my house because we were all going in the morning. Obviously, very nervous as I am always whenever I'm doing public speaking or speaking to a camera. Lots of people in my house getting ready to go down to Downtown. I remember listening to my go-to Marvin Gaye and his great, What's Going On. I was listening to that.

I was communicating with our communications and logistics people and they were giving me great reports of people amassing throughout the area. The meeting point and great reports from the helicopter of what the turnout was beginning to look like. Then we went down to the start and that was awkward because we weren't quite sure logistically how we were going to start the march, right? How do you start a march of 100,000 people or more? Who knows where you go to learn that.

I know we were all there. We had wanted to have thousands and thousands of American flags, but we had [unintelligible 00:24:44] run out of money paying for buses then flags we didn't put enough money aside for. I remember us at the meeting point, Father [unintelligible 00:24:54], Juan Jose, and myself. Richard Alcon was there. I remember us-- we had Boy Scouts there, Boy Scouts troop. We wanted to give a very pro-American image of the immigrants in this country. We had to start and then we just said, "Okay, well, let's do this." [chuckles] We just locked arms and started walking forward. We were right there at what was Brooklyn, now Chavez. Brooklyn in Marina, it's called Five Points, a famous spot in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

We just locked arms and started walking and people started joining us and following us and it just grew and there were others. I remember Jack Henning, the head of the AFL-CIO came down from Sacramento. He was an old man, very old man, but he wanted to be there. He wanted to walk, be part of the leadership of that march. I remember him joining us. I was a little worried about his health at that time. Then I remember seeing some famous-- Casey Kasem was with us, but there were other famous actors along the side who we just waved to them to come and join us.

That was it. It was a long march. I remember coming under the tunnel. We were coming under the tunnel and then just coming out there was so much noise, the echo of the tunnel. It was very emotional for me to be there at that moment and to come through. I remember my family joining me and the support of my family. Unfortunately, my wife, who was ill much during that time period, was not available to join us on that day, but I remember the support of my family, my niece, and nephew in a little cart and us pulling them along in the little wagon, in a little red wagon.

Then I remember just us getting to downtown walking up the hill and down the hill. It was incredible to see a mass of people like that. It was very powerful. It's very inspiring. Oh, we anticipated that. Obviously, that's why we were very adamant in our efforts that we would have the clergy with us, men and women in collars, in the march. Father [unintelligible 00:27:31] at the beginning. That we had the Boy Scouts, that we did these things that were manifestations of being very patriotic to them, being immigrants is in many respects very patriotic in its essence.

We were thoughtful about that. We anticipated it. We weren't surprised. I wasn't surprised. Obviously, we wanted to do more with the American flags, but at some point it wasn't about any of that. It was about the bad economy. It's about our [unintelligible 00:28:05] of anti-immigration and racism in the city of California. It was about really difficult times for people who were going through and the changes of the economy. Literally, we were closing auto plants. The factory where my father worked had closed a few years earlier. The aerospace industry, it's just really losing jobs by the thousands on a monthly basis.

Those were difficult circumstances for people to deal with and blaming immigrants is something that people do historically. We know that with today's president, Donald Trump, that that's a tried and true way of distracting people. Ultimately, that was more prevalent than whether or not somebody had a Mexican flag or was demonstrating how proud they were of the countries they came from. It may not have been helpful, but it wasn't determinative.

Pete Wilson has a long history in the state of California. He was a mayor in San Diego and so he was a mayor of one of the major border towns of the country. He was also a senator, a US senator in the US Senate. He'd also been involved in the immigration reform. People, immigrant rights groups would sometimes go to him. I had to work with him both in San Diego as mayor and as a US senator.

He has a long history in governance in the state of California. He was obviously the governor and then reelected as a governor. In 1993, he supported the initiatives to raise taxes which was for Republicans, something really difficult. It's not something that's looked upon favorably by the very conservative Republicans, the fiscal conservative within the Republican Party. He had supported tax increases in the early '90s as efforts to try to keep the state afloat during this impending recession.

Look, California is the lead in the resistance, in the anti-Trump movement of the nation. It's one of the bluest states of not the bluest state in the nation. Our perspective is that this is a much a product of the labor movement, which while we lost that election in '94, we won the governor's office '98, we've won all the constitutional offices since then other than the aberration of Schwarzenegger.

The coalition of the labor movement and immigrant rights groups, Latinos has been a major force in the development of California's political perspective. California is the fifth-largest economy of the world. You cannot ignore the contributions, whether it's in Silicon Valley or whether it's in the garment industry or in the incredible role that the service economy plays on California's economy that immigrants play a major role in that.

You couple that with unions who were organizing and being very thoughtful about their political agenda began to elect people who were very now explicit, very openly pro-immigrant. You start with the Marco fireballs. Antonio Villaraigosa and I had both come out of that pro-immigrant movement from the '70s but the elections of people like Fabiana Núñez and Kevin de León who rise through the top positions of state legislature both on the assembly and the state senate. It's hard to find when you look at California today, with it sanctuary state, with the driver's license for immigrant motorists, with the California DREAM Act, with professional licenses for immigrants in the state of California, for all the various legislative initiatives that take place in California that are pro-immigrant, it's hard to think of that, that mere 25 years ago, that there were propositions that were trying to kick children out of schools and deny them medical services, that's a sea change of historic proportion.

All those relationships we talked about, and even in '93, the efforts for Chicano studies at UCLA and the people who were involved in that, all these forces come together on 187. I left SEIU abruptly in '96, worked for a short minute with the United Food and Commercial Workers. In 1997, I was elected in the primary and began work in the first week of 1998 in the state legislature. I followed ironically Louis Caldera who had played a role in the legislation to remove the driver's license from immigrant motorists, it was the policy of the state since the '30s, since almost the advent of the vehicle, the car.

I came to Sacramento. During that time period, many of these immigrant groups continued to work with our union, and our efforts to save the health care system in 1995. That coalition and that dialogue was ongoing at that point. In my district, in many of the little meetings I would go to and Pico-Union, for example, people would talk to me and approach me about their cars being taken away from them because they didn't have a driver's license. That issue was emerging on behalf of immigrants. In a meeting with Nativo Lopez, he brought it to our attention that this was an issue for them in Orange County and that he wanted us to work on it.

Naively, naiveté has been one of our nice strategic perspectives and much of my work. I went to Sacramento and I introduced a bill that would mitigate the damages of people having their cars towed. That was squashed immediately, I couldn't even get a second. I got a courtesy second from a very nice Republican from Chino and the bill was squashed by the Democrats.

When we went back with Gray Davis winning in the fall and we went back to the legislature, we thought, why are we working on the edges? It's bad policy, it was only done because people didn't like immigrants and thought this was going to hurt them, but it was really bad public policy. Is was a bad policy for the highways, for the state. We reintroduced it, but we introduced it to completely restore all the driving privileges and responsibilities to immigrants.

It was amazing that this bill was introduced, I got a hearing, but again, it was just crushed in the beginning. I think the next year, we introduced it and we moved it forward and we got it through the assembly side and I thought, "Oh, my God, what great progress." Then we had to go to the senate. We went to the senate and again, it was crushed and mostly by Democrats and so it's tough.

I remember presenting it to Dick Mountjoy who was on the committee, Dick Mountjoy who was the author of proposition 187. I'm introducing the bill and I'm looking up at him because the senators sit up on the [unintelligible 00:35:50]. His head looks like it's going to explode. His face gets all red. I'm looking at this man and it looks like he's going to just blow up. [laughs] I'm just sitting there thinking, "Okay, let's see what he says." Then he starts on a rant about immigrants and I said, "That's very interesting, but that's not really relevant to what we're proposing here. This is about highway safety. Everything you said may be true or not true, it's debatable, but it has nothing to do with our proposal and there's no reason why immigrants shouldn't drive as they have always driven."

We did great research on the history of the DMV and of licensing in the state of California and there was no reason why immigrants shouldn't drive in the state of California. It died in that committee. It took us about a year or two before we were able to get it out of the committees into the governor's desk. Of course, the governor's desk was a whole different story initially, [unintelligible 00:36:49] they were going to fix it, we had made some adjustments to it, and our meeting was scheduled for the morning of 9-11-01. That's when we were getting ready to talk about the bill signing and everything related to the bill.

Of course, 9-11 happens and everybody goes crazy and security becomes a concern. There's a discussion that these terrorists had driver's licenses and so all of a sudden that becomes even a greater burden at the time. It's like anti-immigration but on steroids and it made it much more challenging and more difficult. Look, we are in a very unromantic movement in American history. Racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, nativism is just at a high level, one of its highest levels. It's offensive, it's obscene to us from this perspective.

You can't imagine the president begins his campaign attacking immigrants, Mexican specifically, his ignorance is pervasive, he attacks other nations as being states of Mexico. Mexicans are blamed for everybody's problem. The further away from the border, people will be seen somehow to be more threatened by immigrants. If in Montana, somebody hears somebody speaking Spanish, even though the person's a citizen, they're calling the authorities to come and investigate this person. This is crazy, this is unthinkable. These people are citizens and yet to simply be out and to be an immigrant whether you're a citizen or not, it's a difficult and threatening circumstance and situation for anyone.

Children are placed in cages at the border, families are separated, kids are taken from their families, we're violating not only American law but international law with respect to the immigrants. You have some of the most draconian figures in the White House. This young man from Santa Monica, Stephen Miller, this is a very sad person who needs perhaps therapy, and yet has taken his hate right into the main corridors of the White House and is dictating much of the president's immigration policy and disposition, this is horrible.

You add that with the others who were part of their original cabal of people around, the questions of immigration, Steve Bannon and the other guy from Kansas, these people are just mean spirited, they're ignorant, they don't understand history, they're on the wrong side of history. Nevertheless, that brings no comfort to an immigrant in this nation today. We need to confront this at every point which is why I'm proud that Los Angeles is a city of sanctuary, why we are constructing our own rules, regulations, and laws to protect immigrants, but not just immigrants, gays, LGBTQ, African-Americans, Muslims, women.

This is a scary moment in our nation and we remain committed to peaceful change. This is challenging and it's threatening. You see its impact on the global stage, on our relationships, and our alliances throughout the world and around our efforts to be thought of as a peacekeeping nation and a contributor to peace in the world, all that is in jeopardy. Immigrants are part of this and we have a role to play in pushing back against this president, this administration, and those who follow him.

With respect to DACA today and immigration reform, they're essential. As the author of the California DREAM Act, it's a very simple statement. Young people brought here through no choice of their own should be given every opportunity to live here, to develop themselves. The history shows that they're all prepared to make great contributions to our society. There's a big array of people who have been successful, who came here, who were brought by their parents, and didn't have legal status.

José Hernández, the astronaut from California, Dr. Q, the great doctor at John Hopkins. There's a whole range of literature of people who were brought here by their parents, had undocumented status for a while, then went on to make great contributions to our society. Clearly, DACA was a step forward. It could have been a bigger step. It should have been a bigger step, but it is a step forward that has to be protected. At the same time, we need to advocate and go beyond that. DACA recipients and their families should be integrated into the mainstream and immigration reform for the 11 plus million people, we need to have that now.

What's important is for people to understand that today, what they have as a status of DACA is a product of the efforts of proposition 187 and the movements that were built then, that the efforts to get a driver's license at this moment still remains perhaps the most significant victory for immigrants in the last 25 years. The 1.2 million in California who have gotten a driver's license, the 900,000 in New York, literally millions of people will have a right to drive and get the privilege to drive in their states as a product of this movement that emerged out of the fight against 187.

The fight against 187 has its roots and those people who were members of CASA and the other immigrant rights groups of the '70s and historic figures like Bert Corona, who's been doing this or who did this during his life, since the '30s, organizing people and fighting for the rights of immigrants. There's a long rich history in terms of advocacy on behalf of immigrants, all immigrants. Those who are the beneficiaries today need to know and understand that they are a product of history. They've got their own destiny, they've got their own battles to fight, but those are simply the next stage and the next chapter of a very rich history of immigrants in this nation.

I think America can learn that there's no point in fighting the inevitability of this nation's ongoing destiny of integrating immigrants into their mainstream, that this is from its beginning and its future is a nation of immigrants. It's unique in that way and that we can learn that there's really no point and value of scapegoating immigrants when there's problems of our economy, that what we need to do is embrace their talent, embrace their optimism and embrace their commitment to their vision, to a better future. That commitment manifests in what they do for their families, what their families do for the community, and how this all makes the nation a greater nation that makes America the place that everybody wants to come to. That in essence, by being pro-immigrant, you are being pro American.

That is the lesson that Americans need to understand, that just like the story of their families, the same stories of people who are coming here, who may speak another language, who will take a generation to assimilate it's going happen regardless, and that what we should do is embrace it, set up social infrastructure for it and take advantage of it as fast as we can. I'm a very powerful person in many respects, particularly for a young kid from Boyle Heights.

I've been a state senator. I've traveled the world. I've spoken at the UN. I've met powerful people. I know powerful people. When I'm out in public, I recognize that I am, in the eyes of many, just another Mexican. Recently, I went to go visit a friend of mine. I was taking some food just walking in. They opened the door for the secure area and I get confronted about not being able to enter the building. What am I doing?

It was really offensive and very unfortunate because it was here in my district. It was here in this great city of Los Angeles, but it's very evident that the woman was trying to stop me from going forward because I was a Mexican and she didn't think I belong there and she didn't want me there. It's not the first time and it's not atypical in unfortunately, many areas of our nation to be confronted like that. It requires someone to be very affirmative to understand obviously the limits of what they can do, but also to engage that affirmatively and assert your rights that you have.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Find more firsthand accounts of the Prop 187 campaign here.

Gil Cedillo was better known for many years as the man who pursued a bill that seemed impossible to achieve: driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

But his crusade for immigrants started many years before when he was the President of Local 660 of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), a public sector union in which the Boyle Heights native did not come in much contact with newer immigrant workers.

But in 1994, he heard many of his friends who were pro-immigrant activists when they all went to college together talk about a voter initiative that was coming to the ballot: Proposition 187, the Save Our State initiative, and his union friends Joel and Kathy Ochoa told him about a grassroots protest going on downtown.

“And so I remember driving there to see this, and I was impressed by how large the march was, with no publicity and the lack of infrastructure for that size of the march,” he remembers. "They didn't have a stage or a large P.A. System. It seemed odd.”

The march was put together by activists from a nonprofit civic organization, One Stop Immigration, to oppose an initiative that sought to take away benefits from undocumented immigrants. And he knew one of these activist-organizers: Juan José Gutiérrez.

"So I invited him to my office on a Saturday, and we talked about how we could help and what I thought were the advantages of working with labor,” Cedillo says, now 25 years from that day.

That's when Cedillo met Kevin de León and Fabián Núñez, two young organizers working for One Stop and helping organize the community against the ballot initiative. By then, Cedillo was already powerful, he headed one of the nation's largest unions, but not everyone in that union thought it was a good idea to join this fight for immigrants.

“Many unions were not very pro-immigrant or very progressive. There were internal battles,” he says.

Today, Cedillos sees this as a turning point, not just for the immigrant rights movement but for labor.

“It was a historic moment, where both of these intersected on behalf of their interests,” he adds.

Cedillo came both from immigrant and union stock. He grew up in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles and attended Roosevelt High School. He graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1977 and a law degree from the People's College of Law in 1983.

His father worked as a mechanic at American Can in Vernon and was a member of the United Steelworkers of America. His mother was a garment worker at Sears.

In college, he was part of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA).

He started at Local 660 in 1990. When 187 came about, he had already been there for four years and worked to elect pro-union candidates to office. The union was highly active in the political arena. It was getting ready to work on the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Kathleen Brown, who was competing against incumbent governor Pete Wilson.

But at the sight of what was going on with his former classmate and the initiative he considered anti-immigrant and offensive made him re-assess his work.

Cedillo helped the group secure resources to get their biggest march together, put up a decent stage with a good P.A. system, publicized the effort, mobilized labor union members and others.  Many elected officials and union leaders, including in his own, were not in favor of the effort.

“It was difficult for me personally at the time not to have the full support of the union. It was disconcerting, but not discouraging,” he adds.

The march he helped put together was historic. In addition, it led to more unions recognizing that immigrant workers were organizable and that they were the future of the growth of the union movement.

Two years after 187, he was pushed out of the union. He worked briefly for the United Food and Commercial Workers, but in 1997, he ran for the state legislature and was elected to the state assembly seat left by Louis Caldera, who actually sponsored a bill to take away driver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants.

In meetings within his district, he would hear from immigrants who got their car towed for not having a driver’s license. Activists started asking for a move on this issue, and Cedillo commenced a crusade to get driver’s licenses.  The bill (AB60) was finally signed into law by Governor Brown on October 3, 2013, nine months after he termed out of state office.

In 2002, he was elected to the State Senate, where he worked on other issues like expanding access to health care, developing regional solutions to combat homelessness, and encouraging economic development in his downtown Los Angeles district.

He was re-elected in 2006 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2009. Then, he went back to the assembly in 2010 and became chairman of California's Latino Legislative Caucus.

In 2011, Cedillo authored a pair of assembly bills to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain financial aid for universities through both private and public sources. The assembly bills, known as AB 130 and AB 131 for private and public financial aid respectively, became law.

He was termed out of the state legislature in 2012 and ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the city's most immigrant and diverse district: District 1.

Get the free PBS App

Full Episodes

Upcoming Airdates

187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

Proposition 187 was a California ballot measure passed in 1994 that sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants.  While the initiative was meant to keep the “immigrant threat” at bay, it mobilized non-immigrants and immigrants in Latino communities as well as their allies across the state.

  • 2020-11-03T10:30:00-08:00