20 Years After Prop 187’s Demise, OC’s Anti-Immigrant Hysteria Goes National

A federal judge delivered the fatal blows 20 years ago today to California’s Proposition 187, the notorious anti-immigrant initiative that partially festered out of Orange County. Prior to Judge Mariana Pfaelzer striking the ballot measure down as unconstitutional, the state became an immigration battleground during the 1994 election long before any Trumpbro ever chanted “Build the wall!” Ron Prince, an OC accountant at the time, co-authored Prop. 187 with hopes of stripping every immigrant without papers from accessing basic services like public education while tasking social servants—teachers, police officers, social workers—with turning in suspected “illegals.”

The late Barbara Coe formed the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform hate group in ’94 to co-sponsor and champion the “Save Our State” initiative. Republican Governor Pete Wilson rode the nativist wave with re-election campaign ads showing throngs of Mexicans crossing the San Diego border. OC high school students organized walk outs before the election like their fellow MEChA classmates up-and-down the state. Mexican death metal band Brujeria even rallied their hermanos mojados in the cult classic “Raza Odiada (Pito Wilson).”

But the Mexi masses lost, and badly.

The Know Nothing triumph—from Prop. 187 to Pete Wilson—seems unfathomable in today’s California where Democrats have a lock on Sacramento and helped the Golden State recently turn into a “Sanctuary” for immigrants. But back then, the initiative won handily at the polls with 59 percent voting for its approval versus a paltry 41 percent opposed. The short-lived victory thrived on racial resentment, thanks especially to the polarizing murder trial of Steve Woods, a 17 year-old teen freakishly killed by a paint roller thrown during a beach brawl in San Clemente the year before. Woods suffered the fatal injury after a group of mostly white youth traded barbs on the beach with some Latino youngsters following an October football game in 1993. When white teens later raced towards Latinos in their car, they got pelted by objects including the paint roller that proved to be Woods’ unlikely end. In the ensuing murder trial, prosecutors got one of the Latinos to take a plea deal giving him a 10-year sentence in exchange for implicating others in the case, including Rogelio Solis who is still serving time on his 15 years to life sentence. Kathy Woods, Steve’s mother, allowed Coe’s hate group to use an X-ray showing her son’s impaled skull to rally for Prop. 187’s passage. Coe hoisted her “Steve Woods Murdered By Illegal Alien Gang” sign into OC’s immigration wars.

While Coe’s crew rode the racial tensions of the Woods trial to Prop. 187 victory, they hardly had a chance to savor it. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the American Civil Liberties Union led the legal charge the very next day after the initiative’s passage, tangling it up in court. Three years later, they claimed a victory after the judge’s decision that ensured most of Prop. 187’s provisions would never see the light of day. “California is powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration,” Pfaezler ruled. “It is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits.”

But Prop. 187’s greater legacy is the ascent of liberal Latino politics in California. Those youthful Latino activists who walked out against it grew up to become community leaders and elected officials. Since 2001, California offers in-state tuition to undocumented college students thanks to AB 540. The long battle to put driver’s licenses into the hands of immigrants finally became reality in 2015 with a million expected to be issued by the year’s end. And the frothing, right-wing Republicans? They’ve been largely relegated to the sidelines while California’s demographics, and liberal politics, turn more Latino by the day.  But the same year undocumented drivers began getting their licencias, Donald Trump announced his improbable campaign for presidency lambasting Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” (He assumed there’s some good folks in the otherwise bad bunch). His bid for the White House included a call to build a big wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep immigrants from Latin America out, reviving Prop. 187-styled xenophobic hysteria on a national level along with it. Kathy Woods even reemerged to bring her son’s story to a Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona.

After Trump won the election, California politicians are taking measures to make the state becomes a bastion of resistance against his anti-immigrant agenda. Shortly after Inauguration Day, SanTana officially became a “Sanctuary City” with provisions prohibiting government workers from sharing immigrant status information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement; a throwback protection to Prop. 187’s attempt to enlist public employees as snitches for la migra. Other local cities and school boards are trying to find a way to support undocumented immigrants through similarly spirited resolutions and policies.

While Trump in the White House may make it seem like Know Nothings got the last laugh, political observers are already chatting about the “Prop. 187 effect” in the wake of this month’s dress rehearsal elections for next year’s midterm battles, especially after the GOP took a beating in Virginia of all places. Is Trump the last gasp of overt, anti-immigrant politics on a national scale? Maybe he’ll end up burying the Republican Party and Know Nothing politics deeper than whatever recesses of hell Coe finds herself in these days!

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