Looking Back at Proposition 187 Twenty-Five Years Later

Protestors Walking Out Against Proposition 187 by La Opinion Digital ArchiveCalifornia State Archives

Twenty-five years ago, on November 8, 1994, Proposition (Prop) 187 was approved by California voters—supporters and opponents of the measure could not have been more starkly divided.  The measure, one of the most pivotal immigration-reform laws in recent California history, would bar undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefits such as health care, education, and social services. For supporters of the measure it was a crucial victory that affirmed the state-led initiative to fight a perceived lack of federal action on immigration control. While supporters claimed this measure was critical to discourage illegal immigration, save the state billions of dollars, and preserve the state’s resources for legal residents, opponents viewed the rhetoric of the measure as blatantly anti-immigrant, fearing it would increase racism and hate crimes against marginalized ethnic populations regardless of their legal status.  For many who fought against the measure, its passage was a devastating blow that was taken as a direct attack on immigrant populations, primarily Latino communities in California. 

The Prop 187 campaign—the most divisive and controversial one in California’s November 1994 state election—took the state by storm, creating a powerful legacy with lasting impact on California politics.

Pete Wilson holding identification cards by La Opinion Digital ArchiveCalifornia State Archives

The early 1990’s in California ushered in a time of changing demographics alongside economic and social unrest.  Those coming in from the southern border at an unprecedented rate were rapidly shifting the state’s demographics. The 1990 US Census showed a significant 7% increase of the state’s Latino population over the previous decade, jumping from 19% to 26%. Demographers in the 1990’s surmised that by 2025, “the Latino population would become the largest ethnic group in the state.” According to the US Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) in 1994—the year Prop 187 appeared on the ballot—California had the most unauthorized border crossings of any state and an estimated population of 1.6 million undocumented immigrants. 

92' LA Riots AftermathCalifornia State Archives

This wave of new immigrants coincided with a period of economic strife, high unemployment rates, and civil unrest in California. The state suffered a recession from 1990-1991, and unemployment rates crept to a high of nearly 8% in 1992. Los Angeles experienced much turbulence in the early 1990’s. Violent city-wide riots erupted due to racial tensions between African Americans and the LAPD. These events gained heavy media attention and concerns of crime, violence, and racial politics came to the forefront of the state.
California’s poor economy and social conflict created an atmosphere of struggle, uneasiness, and frustration. Some took to explaining these problems by accusing incoming immigrants of draining state resources and increasing crime, and politicians created platforms based on this idea. The nineties saw a series of bills related to immigration policy that were put forth during Governor Pete Wilson’s administration, and Prop. 187 was foremost among them.

Pro 187 Event in Orange CountyCalifornia State Archives

California Prop 187, dubbed the “Save Our State” initiative by its proponents, was a November 8, 1994 General Election ballot measure. After numerous legislative defeats, Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy created the measure to combat what he perceived to be an unsustainable influx of undocumented immigrants into California.
Prop 187 intended to make it so that undocumented immigrants in California would be ineligible for public benefits such as non-emergency medical services or public education. It also required school districts, hospitals, and other social service offices to begin audits of their lists to identify those who may be undocumented; effectively making schools, hospitals, and those other agencies a part of immigration enforcement.

Assemblymember Dick Mountjoy Adresses the Education CommitteeCalifornia State Archives

Assemblyman Mountjoy believed that when undocumented immigrants entered the United States, they became a drain on the taxpayers of California and created more crime in the communities they entered. He specifically wrote in the language of Prop 187 that the people of California, “…have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal immigrants in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.”
Assemblyman Mountjoy relied on immigration reform groups with similar views to organize and gather the 384,874 signatures necessary for Prop 187 to appear on the general election ballot on November 8, 1994.

CA Governor Pete Wilson 95' on ImmigrationCalifornia State Archives

One of the strongest supporters of Prop 187 was Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who made it a central part of his platform during his 1994 reelection campaign. His argument was identical to Assemblyman Mountjoy in that he believed undocumented immigrants were a burden to taxpayers and a drain on the California economy, at an estimated cost of $2.3 billion per year.
Before endorsing Prop 187 as part of his campaign, Governor Wilson previously had attempted to sue the federal government in the early months of 1994 for the cost of educating undocumented immigrants in public schools and providing health services.

“California’s Illegal Immigration Burden” from Press Office of Governor Pete Wilson (1994) by California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign bought the only pro-Prop 187 advertisements aired on TV. One of the most memorable advertisements showed undocumented immigrants running across the border from Mexico into California as a narrator declares, “They keep coming; 2 million illegal immigrants in California.”

This ad and others put out by the Wilson campaign were decried by opponents of Prop 187 as prejudiced against Latinos by showing them as invaders to the United States. However, Wilson vigorously denied accusations of racism, framing the issue as purely an economic consideration and one of federal mismanagement that was costing California billions.

Newspaper Article, “Latinos Blast Governor for Immigration Reform Proposals” by Dan Whitcomb (1993/1997) by California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Prop 187 garnered opposition from many California politicians, but also made its way into the national conversation as well. Democratic President Bill Clinton took aim at it on the campaign trail for California Democrats, stating, “I hope to goodness you’re going to beat 187.”

California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein made her opposition to Prop 187 known a few weeks before the November 1994 elections, when she would also be on the ballot.

Prominent Latino politicians in California like then-Congressman Xavier Becerra and then-State Assemblymember Hilda Solis also opposed Prop 187. Solis was quoted as saying that the proposal, “single(d) out” Latinos.

The editorial boards of some major U.S. newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times also published pieces expressing opposition to the measure.

Newspaper Coverage of Governor Appel's Comments (1994) by California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Prop 187 didn’t just receive attention from United States public officials, as Mexican leaders entered the conversation as well. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, the Governor of Baja California, inserted himself into the immigration debate during the Border Governors Conference on May 27, 1994. Governor Appel stated that he sympathized with Governor Wilson’s issues with immigration and said of Wilson that, “I know him and I know he is a positive man. I know he likes Mexicans.”

Governor Appel was not the only Mexican official to give comment about California’s immigration debate. The Governor of Sonora, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, was slightly more candid in his comments about the situation, noting that immigration was, “a very delicate subject to use in an election campaign,” clearly referencing Wilson making immigration issues central in his reelection bid.

Protestors against Proposition 187 by La Opinion Digital ArchiveCalifornia State Archives

Prop 187 sparked immediate backlash, especially among the Latino community in California. They didn’t view this issue as one to protect California taxpayers; they saw it as a bigoted, scapegoat attempt by government officials to blame the undocumented community for the financial woes of California.

The Latino community began to organize against Prop 187, with their largest event occurring on October 16, 1994. 70,000 protestors marched to Los Angeles City Hall to demonstrate their opposition to Prop 187. The protestors were primarily Latino, but many whites, Asian Americans, and African Americans took part in the protests as well.

Students Protest Prop 187California State Archives

This protest created some of the strongest imagery against Prop 187. Tens of thousands of protestors marched. In a way, this protest was not only done to demonstrate opposition to Prop 187, but also served as a celebration of the various ethnic backgrounds of the immigrant community California.
Another such protest occurred on November 2, 1994, when 10,000 students in the Los Angeles area staged a walk-out from more than 30 schools to march on Los Angeles City Hall against Prop 187.
While these were some of the largest protests against Prop 187, they were by no means the only ones that occurred.

Governor’s Executive Order W-113-94 Page 1 (1994) by California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Despite provoking some of the largest protests in California history, on November 8, 1994, Prop 187 was approved by California voters by a margin of 58.92% to 41.08%. This outcome was consistent with public polling, as Prop 187 had led in the polls since its introduction. According to exit polls, while Prop 187 was strongly rejected by Latino voters as a whole, it still received 22% of the Latino vote, along with an overwhelming 59% in support from white voters, and substantial support from African Americans and the Asian American voters, receiving 44% and 46% of those voters, respectively. At the same time, Governor Wilson was reelected. He received 55.18% of the vote compared to 40.63% for his Democratic challenger, California State Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

Copy of Final Ruling signed by Federal Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer, Page One (1998) by Office of the Chancellor Records; Special Collections, University Library, UC DavisCalifornia State Archives

Within days of passage, lawsuits were filed by groups such as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) seeking to block Prop 187 from going into effect.

Three days after it was passed, Federal Judge Matthew Byrne Jr. issued a temporary restraining order against Prop 187, blocking the enforcement and application of most of the law.

On November 21, 1995, Federal Judge Mariana Pfaelzer of the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the portion of Prop 187 that would allow the state to block undocumented immigrant children from attending state-run primary and secondary schools to be unconstitutional.

Judge Pfaelzer later issued her preliminary ruling on the constitutionality of Prop 187 on November 15, 1997, where she ruled it unconstitutional, stating that California did not have the legal standing to create immigration policy, a power vested to the federal government. However, Pfaelzer did allow sections establishing criminal penalties for manufacturing and using false documents to stand. Judge Pfaelzer issued the final order blocking implementation of the main components of Prop 187 on March 19, 1998.

Protestors holding signs urging Governor Gray Davis to stop Proposition 187 by Ciro Cesar; La Opinion Digital ArchiveCalifornia State Archives

Governor Wilson’s administration appealed the decision to the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Governor Wilson, however, was termed out of office in 1999 and succeeded by Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The Davis administration brought the case before mediation, but withdrew the appeal of Pfaelzer’s decision on July 29, 1999, effectively ending Prop 187.

“Latino Activists vow to prevent future 187’s,” The San Diego Tribune (1999) by Herman Baca Collection; University of California, San Diego Special Collections & ArchiveCalifornia State Archives

Prop 187, alongside the series of immigration reform bills that emerged in the early- to mid-1990s in California, was closely associated in the public eye with Governor Pete Wilson and the Republican Party. Many Latinos saw Prop 187 as a pointed attack on their communities, and the campaign has been identified as a catalyst that galvanized more Latino citizens to register to vote and participate in elections.  It also spurred many who were not naturalized to obtain citizenship in order to partake in future elections. According to Census Current Population Survey data, in 1994 there were 1.4 million Latinos registered to vote in California; today there are more than 4 million.

There has been a more than 100 percent increase in Latinos serving in the state legislature. In 1996, there were 14 Latino state legislators; today, there are 29. In 1996, there were no Latino statewide officeholders; today, there are four.  The U.S. House of Representatives had four Latinos from California in 1996, there are now 14.

Prop 187 served as the catalyst for a new generation of activists who have led the way in creating the nation’s most inclusive set of policies and rights for immigrants.

Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives, Yolo County Archives, La Opinion Digital Archive, UC San Diego Special Collections & Archives and U.C. Davis Special Collections University Library.

Footage courtesy of Cherie Saunders and Rich Kane.

Digital exhibit and imaging by Max Thogmartin and Noel Albertsen. (2019)

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