Thursday, February 29, 2024

Column: California Latinos have become more skeptical of undocumented immigrants. What changed?

For the past quarter century, California’s Democratic politicians have operated under the maxim that the more laws enacted to protect people without legal status in this country, the better.

Sacramento lawmakers passed bills allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, pay tuition at public universities and receive Medi-Cal. They declared California a “sanctuary state,” prohibiting local law enforcement from assisting federal immigration agents. School districts approved extending voting rights to undocumented parents. Cities and counties contributed municipal funds to help residents caught in eviction proceedings.

It’s the legacy of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure overwhelmingly passed by California voters that sought to make life miserable for undocumented immigrants. It never took effect because a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional – but it forever changed the Golden State and demonstrated the political power of Latinos.

Proposition 187 was so hated by Latinos that an LA Times exit poll showed only 23 percent of us voted for it, compared to 63 percent of whites. Those of us who came of age during this time renounced the Republican Party and redoubled our efforts to create a more merciful state. We helped transform California from political purple to bluer than Lake Tahoe. We taught activists in other states how to fight the Republican Party’s anti-immigration model that has spread across the country and made its way to the Trump White House.

Scholars, activists and politicians still cite Proposition 187 as a warning about underestimating Latino power. But there is a risk in transposing the past into the present. That’s why Democrats should be concerned about polls showing that in California, Latino support for undocumented immigrants and measures to help them has gradually eroded over the past two decades.

Protesters gather in support of undocumented students in the University of California system outside a 2023 UC Board of Regents meeting.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As early as 2001, a Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that the gap between whites and Latinos on whether illegal immigration was a “problem” was nearly half the gap between the groups on the proposition 187. In 2012, an LA Times poll asked: Asked whether Californians would support bringing back Proposition 187 found that a third of Latinos said yes, just 18 percentage points fewer than whites. In a 2019 Public Policy Institute of California survey, 75% of Latinos thought illegal border crossings, at a time when migrant caravans were highly publicized, were either a “crisis” or a “serious problem” – more than the 70% of whites who felt the same way.

And the change continues. A December survey by UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, of more than 3,000 Latinos in eight states showed that Latinos in California were more open to “increasing border security” than Latinos from Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. We’re tied with Florida for last place in wishing the government would provide a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. Of all the states, it was the least interested in increasing legal immigration or allowing amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Asked in the UnidosUS poll to rank their top three issues, Latinos in California ranked immigration sixth, behind cost of living, lack of affordable housing and crime.

Last month, a UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies poll on border security, co-sponsored by The Times, found that 63 percent of Latinos in California view undocumented immigrants as a “burden ”, compared to 79% of whites. Regarding the nation’s asylum laws, 33% of Latinos described them as too lenient, compared to 39% of whites. Latinos were slightly more likely than whites to say stricter laws would be “effective” in reducing the number of migrants seeking asylum. On almost all questions, there was little gap between English-dominant Latinos and Latinos who prefer Spanish — a sort of stand-in for natives and immigrants.

In this 30th anniversary year, as Californians reflect on the legacy of Proposition 187, it is important to pay attention to these polls. Arrests for unauthorized crossings from Mexico reached a record high in December. Even President Biden is pledging to close the border instead of rolling out the proverbial welcome mat. That California’s Latinos — whose growth was primarily due to immigration, legal or otherwise — are becoming almost as skeptical of uncontrolled illegal immigration as their white neighbors is a sad, if inevitable, step.

floating border barrier

Migrants walk past large buoys used as a floating border barrier on the Rio Grande in 2023 in Eagle Pass, Texas.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

This will not automatically translate into more Latinos voting Republican. This means that the era of open borders in California is beginning to end. Last month, the UC Board of Regents refused to move forward with a long-promised policy aimed at hiring undocumented students without work permits. Despite boos and cries of “cowards,” the regents followed the advice of President Michael V. Drake, who warned of legal risks.

That might not have been the case when Donald Trump was in office, when California’s lords went out of their way to challenge his administration on everything related to illegal immigration.

This hardening of Latinos does not surprise me at all. In a state where about 83 percent of Latinos are of Mexican origin, according to census data analyzed by the Latino Politics and Policy Institute at UCLA, there is less and less empathy for the changing faces of illegal immigration. I have seen this within my own family.

When undocumented immigrants were my aunts and uncles, we hailed them as heroes. They told stories of confrontation the migration, as if they were in a Benny Hill sketch. To this day, decades after becoming an American citizen, my father proudly considers himself a mojado – a wet back. But when Mexicans started coming from southern states with larger indigenous populations, my relatives considered them immobile. Flojos – lazy people – who were not like OUR Mexicans.

When tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors entered this country over the past decade, my family members’ sympathy for them was accompanied by grumbling about who should care for them. From now on, Venezuelan migrants are on everyone’s minds. At a recent family celebration, a distant cousin who came to this country undocumented as a young man denounced Venezuelans supposedly receiving free food and housing in New York, with all the xenophobic talk from a Fox News host.

He said this even though the community center that hosted our party was closing our doors because the tubas and trombones of the sinaloense band were too noisy.

Since the battle over Proposition 187, Latinos have seen themselves as the moral conscience of California. We still show kindness to undocumented immigrants, of course – especially to the political class, many of whom came of age in an era of bigotry. Advocates continue to demonize white people who oppose illegal immigration as uncaring racists.

But one day – sooner rather than later – Latinos will no longer be distinguished from them on this issue that has divided us for so long.

And now what?

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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