Playing by the Rules in California

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Tim Marshall and Rachel Quinn

IN A CAMPAIGN against the civil and human rights of California’s immigrant population, Proposition 187 targeted California’s large, diverse and yet politically weak immigrants’ communities as scapegoats for the state’s continuing economic decline. Proponents sought the passage of statewide legislation denying the human rights of education, health care, and safe communities to undocumented, or so-called “illegal” immigrants.

Despite a mass movement to defeat the proposition, in which literally hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest, educate, and campaign against it, this misnamed “Save Our State” initiative won with 59% of the vote.

Taken in the national context and along with the success of other right wing ballot initiatives in California (like the infamous “Three Strikes, You’re Out” and the lesser known but equally successful initiative that makes it legal to deny bail to people accused of certain crimes), this defeat sounds the loudest wake up call the left has had to mobilize and unify.

Attacks against immigrants are nothing new in California; in the past few years both Democrats and Republicans have supported a program of intensifying the militarization of the border. Clinton’s Crime Bill last year included provisions that would deny federal funds for local police forces for municipalities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland, that uphold local Amnesty laws.

Governor Pete Wilson has used the “immigration crisis” as a political tool to discredit the Democratic administration. The state’s suit against the federal government asks for compensation for the state’s costs incurred in the imprisonment of so-called “illegals,” claiming that the federal government has not done enough to seal off the border of Mexico.

With the suit, Wilson effectively shifted the blame of the state’s economic and budget crisis onto not only a Democratic administration, but also onto the most vulnerable of California’s working class, the immigrant population. Even in the labor movement this anti-Mexico sentiment has some weight.

Who Voted for Proposition 187?

The genius of the initiative was that it was aimed against people who have no way to protect their rights electorally, as undocumented immigrants and even legal alien residents have no right to vote in California. So the tasks of the anti-187 movement were not only to organize within immigrant communities, but also to convince the voting population that the initiative would negatively affect their lives as well.

Although progressives argued that 187’s passage would create a climate of fear and suspicion towards all people of color, elections results distressingly show that the right’s divide and conquer strategy had some effect: 60% of white voters favored, but also 45% of African Americans and even 25% of Latinos.

While the right wing has certainly achieved a significant electoral victory in California, their claims of a clear social “mandate” should be viewed with skepticism. Only about 35% of eligible voters turned out for the November mid-term elections. That means that Prop. 187 garnered “yes” votes from roughly 20% of the potential electorate.

The success of this right wing was in framing the debate over illegal immigration as one of the most severe problems facing this country. The campaign was based on misinformation; except for the denial of public education to undocumented students, or even to children who were born here but whose parents are undocumented, most of the measures included in Proposition 187 are already in place.

Undocumented people cannot get welfare or social security, nor are they legally eligible for non-emergency health care. The fact is that workers using faked documentation pay millions of dollars into the system but don’t get very much of anything back. But illegal immigration is an easy scapegoat for the problems facing California and the rest of the country.

Even the strongest coalitions fighting against the proposition were locked in this debate. Most of the mainstream literature against 187 held that illegal immigration is a problem but that this proposition was not the way to solve it. Part of this was the strategy allowed to an electoral movement; groups like Taxpayers United Against Proposition 187 told their volunteers that the point is not to change people’s minds about illegal immigration, but to get them to vote no.

The key talking points thus centered on the enormous costs of implementing 187, not on the racist nature of the initiative, or on uncovering the real causes of not only the reasons for immigration to the United States but the declining standard of living of people here.

Even within this limited and misleading frame of debate, the fight against the initiative was strong, especially in cities with large Latino populations like San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state was polarized around this issue. Most of the best organizing against Proposition 187 was led by Latinos organizing on a grassroots level in their own communities.

Latino high school students led massive walkouts and protests before the elections. In Los Angeles, more than ten thousand students walked out of classes. In the Bay Area, the numbers were smaller but similarly significant. Even students in small towns like Santa Rosa and Watsonville walked out.

In October a fairly small coalition of leftists within the Latino community in San Francisco called el Movimiento por los Derechos Inmigrantes (Immigrants Rights Movement) organized a march that drew two thousand people and a week later in Los Angeles there was a march of 150,000 against this proposition. Thousands of people phone banked and did door-to-door canvassing to educate about the initiative. Churches, community groups, and unions all joined the fight against the proposition.

In the final days leading up to the elections, the polls showed a marked decline in support of SOS. Initially, the polls had indicated a two-to-one margin in favor and toward the end one poll showed 45% for and 44% against. Even big name Republicans like Jack Kemp and William Bennett had come out against it, on the grounds that it went against traditional conservative calls for a less intrusive government.

Especially after the huge turnout for the march in Los Angeles, which then attracted national attention, activists working against Prop. 187 began to believe that this heinous initiative might be defeatable. As the election night returns came in, however, it became clear that we had suffered a significant defeat.

The most frightening thing about this defeat is that it goes beyond the regular right wing agenda; this is a victory for the far right. Proposition 187 was funded in part by the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist group incorporated in 1937.

The Pioneer Fund is a secretive organization based in New York that has funded most of the major eugenics research in North America, including the notorious works of Dr. William Shockley, who called for the voluntary sterilization of individuals with lower than average IQs and declared that blacks scored lower on IQ tests than whites because of genetic inferiority.

The authors of the proposition tried to downplay this connection and claim that it was not racially motivated. Their campaign was full of coded Orwellian doublespeak that merely emphasized “playing by the rules,” in an effort to appeal to moderate and even liberal voters. This strategy appeared to have worked. While everyone who voted for Proposition 187 was not necessarily a racist, almost every racist voted for it.

To say that the forces which worked so hard against 187 are shell shocked is an understatement. While many legal groups immediately filed suit against the Proposition on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, and there are already a number of restraining orders against implementing it, we are in a weakened position. There is a very real sense of fear among the oppressed, particularly people of color, in California, that we are confronting conditions for a police state.

Building a Movement

Partly because the strategies used to argue against the initiative failed to educate on the real issues of the economic crisis in California, the movement against 187 is left primarily with the legal recourse to fight the constitutionality of the measure. Unfortunately, reliance on the courts will not be entirely sufficient to stave off its implementation. Only with regard to states’ obligation to educate undocumented students is there clear precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court against the proposition’s measures.

Though it will be costly and difficult for the state government to implement, there is now the very real concern that it will indeed try to do so. Only two days after the election, Governor Pete Wilson eagerly announced his intention to cut off prenatal care to undocumented women.

This seems to be only the beginning; we can expect to see copy-cat measures attacking the rights of immigrants and people of color in other states around the country. It is urgent then to now build a multi-racial movement that both can resist the new laws and can stop the growing inroads of the far right.

The grassroots coalitions that fought against 187 are now trying to strategize as to how to build a mass movement, nothing less than a new civil rights movement, to defend the rights of immigrants and people of color in California.

The movement needs to connect with the high school students, who primarily acted independently, to ensure that the energy and political organizing skills acquired during the anti-SOS struggle do not dissipate.

Already there is a pledge-of-resistance campaign of teachers, health care workers, and social service providers who are organizing to refuse to enforce the law. It is also essential that this movement educate on the real causes of immigration: the economic and political domination of Latin America by U.S. capital, at the expense of workers and communities both there and here.

Such a movement could conceivably progress to becoming a true political force capable of economic boycotts, or even work stoppages. Many unions that gave money to defeat the proposition are now in a position to urge non-compliance with the new law.

The left’s weakness was revealed during this election campaign by its inability to have put forth progressive solutions to California’s economic crisis, to effectively challenge the mainstream trusm that the economic crisis was due to Mexican immigrants taking “our” jobs. Had it not been for the massive resistance to the racist character of 187 by the Latino community, especially by its youth and students, the measure might have passed as quietly as the Three strikes You’re Out initiative and by as wide a margin.

Now is the time to continue these grassroots efforts and to assert our vision of a multiracial democratic society, as well as a progressive agenda on jobs, health care, and real solutions to the problems of poverty, crime, and violence.

ATC 54, January-February 1995