How Nativism Went Mainstream

California is often held as a deeply progressive state. But three decades ago, it was the launchpad for a virulent strain of anti-immigrant politics that soon spread nationwide.

A nativist revolt in California was not inevitable. flickr

In the early 1990s, an anti-immigrant insurgency took root in California, the center of the movement to bar Chinese immigration more than a century earlier. A major economic slump had taken hold, thanks in part to declining defense industry jobs after the Cold War drew to a close. Chinese people had moved into the San Gabriel Valley, and Latinos into the San Fernando Valley, as area aerospace manufacturers spun into sharp decline. Immigrants joined black Americans in the racist white imaginary as lazy and unworthy welfare dependents.

As jobs became scarcer, the number of immigrants, authorized and not, was growing. In 1990, an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States, more than 40 percent of them in California. “Illegal immigration is the hottest issue in the state,” said Republican assemblyman Bill Morrow, who represented a wealthy district encompassing portions of Orange and San Diego Counties, in 1993. “We’ve got to say to the Federal Government, ‘If you don’t close the border, we will.’”

In a familiar contradiction, immigrants were seen as both competing for scarce jobs and refusing to work at all, mooching off the state. Citizens identified as “taxpayers” were forced by a hostile government to fund the dangerous fecundity of non-white layabouts. One Republican legislator from an LA suburb circulated a ditty composed by a constituent to that effect:

Everything is mucho good.

Soon we own the neighborhood.

We have a hobby—it’s called breeding.

Welfare pay for baby feeding.

Latina childbearing was a dominant theme, deeply enmeshed with the era’s demonization of poor black mothers. It tied the government’s fiscal irresponsibility to the encouragement of irrepressible and irresponsible reproduction. To many in Southern California, Mexicans illegally invaded by crossing the border, and then illegitimately expanded their numbers by having children who would consume benefits funded by, and thus rightly belonging to, hardworking taxpayers.

California was sold to turn-of-the-twentieth-century Anglos as an “Eden for the Saxon Homeseeker” and organized on profoundly racist principles from the inception of colonization. Spanish rule brutally reduced the indigenous population, which fell from 310,000 in 1769, to 150,000 in 1850, when California became a US state; Americans continued this trend, overseeing a fall to fewer than 20,000 by 1900. In 1950s Los Angeles, media and police stoked a panic that “wolf packs” and “rat packs” of Mexican American youth were “invading white communities to peddle drugs and commit violence,” using the same cars that had enabled California’s low-density utopia to trespass the racial boundaries that defined its social order. Criminal others, as historian Matthew Lassiter writes, made “pretty white females into heroin addict-victims who invariably descended into the living death of prostitution across the urban color line.”

Racist criminalization recapitulated the events of a decade prior, when Mexican American youth dressed in Zoot Suits were portrayed as delinquents and assaulted by masses of rioting servicemen. The state of California officially endorsed residential segregation as the best way to prevent delinquency. Border enforcement, whether within American cities or along international boundaries, functioned and continues to function to protect the spatial organization of race and class hierarchy.

But a nativist revolt in California was not inevitable. In 1979, a poll had found that residents of the Southwest were much less likely than those in the Northeast to believe that undocumented workers took jobs from Americans, something that one expert credited to the concentration of immigrants in areas with the lowest unemployment rates. Anti-immigrant sentiment was by no means dominant.

California lieutenant governor Mike Curb, a Republican, told members of the Republican National Committee in 1979 that “undocumented workers are not committing crime, they are coming here to work. Very few of them are on welfare, very few of them are violating our laws, most of them are extremely good citizens. We should begin to treat them with respect. We should treat any worker who is putting in an honest day’s work with respect.” Imagine a Republican politician saying that in 2020.

Early 1990s California is the first chapter of a story about how such sentiments became politically impossible in the Republican Party. California proved for nativists that mass non-white immigration led to crime, the growth of a racialized underclass unassimilable to American culture, and, critically, excessive expenditures by hardworking taxpayers on behalf of an indolent minority shamelessly reproducing without the means to pay the costs of their offspring.

The nativist revolt culminated in voters’ 1994 passage of Proposition 187, an act of spectacular cruelty that among other things denied public services to suspected undocumented immigrants — even schools — and required public officials to report those immigrants to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). The stated goal was to deter new undocumented immigrants from arriving by driving those already present out of bedrock services.

The measure began by asserting that the people of California “are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state” and from “personal injury and damage caused by [their] criminal conduct.” The measure, originating in the right-wing suburban stronghold of Orange County, simultaneously conjured up a law-abiding and taxpaying victimized citizenry (the suffering people) and those who were to blame: criminal and moocher aliens. White injury was premised on white innocence, which in turn relied on ignorance: absent was the history of Mexican migration and its criminalization; also missing was a good explanation for why all these Anglos even lived in a state and cities with Spanish-language names, places that had in fact previously belonged to multiple indigenous peoples before European genocide.

Two of the key Prop 187 organizers, former border agent Bill King and soon-to-be leading nativist Barbara Coe, summed up the kaleidoscopic dynamic of immigrant threat and white victimhood in a 1992 ad they placed in the National Review. The ad sought out people who had “been victims of crimes either financial (welfare, unemployment, food stamps, etc.), educational (overcrowding, forced bilingual classes, etc.) or physical (rape, robbery, assault, infectious disease, etc.) committed by illegal aliens.”

This was the moment that the movement’s most right-wing demands entered mainstream conservative politics — and thus mainstream politics as a whole — in full force. And though the law’s full implementation was quickly blocked in court, it nonetheless terrorized immigrants. Prop 187 supporters pointed to the fear the law had unleashed in immigrant communities — to celebrate its success. “A number of people have pulled children out of school for no apparent reason. All these things add up to illegal aliens leaving the state of California,” crowed Ron Prince, an Orange County accountant who served as co-chairman of Save Our State, which was the name of the organization backing the measure and also a shorthand for the measure itself.

Republican governor Pete Wilson made 187 and the defense of “Californians who work hard, pay taxes, and obey the laws” a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, and rode anti-“illegal” politics to victory. Wilson made it clear that “illegal immigration” could be a partisan issue that Republicans would seek to own. As Clinton moved his party right, that also meant it was a wedge issue that centrist Democrats would try to co-opt in a bid to outflank them.

Indeed, it was Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and former San Francisco mayor, who led the way in connecting immigration to the economic slump and making “illegal immigrants” a top political issue. It was Feinstein who inspired Governor Wilson “to become more aggressive,” according to a Los Angeles Times analysis at the time. “She has provided ‘cover’ for politicians of both parties, lending respectability to a sensitive area where it is easy to be branded a demagogue and a bigot.” Feinstein suggested that political correctness had made others too afraid to “speak out.”

Feinstein, who had narrowly lost the 1990 gubernatorial election to Wilson, claimed that her “moderate approach” was necessary “to avoid a serious backlash against all immigrants,” articulating establishment politics that would define the coming decades: crackdowns on bad “illegal immigrants” to protect good “legal immigrants” and to defuse extreme right-wing measures.

Feinstein and the rest of the liberal establishment did oppose 187 — but on terms that entirely conceded its premise. The establishment campaign, Taxpayers Against 187, targeted white suburbanites with the case that the war on “illegal immigration” was necessary but that right-wingers were waging it ineffectively. “Something must be done to stop the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the border,” their official statement read. “Illegal Immigration is a REAL problem, but Proposition 187 is NOT A REAL SOLUTION.” The campaign warned that 187 wouldn’t actually deport anyone and that undocumented students expelled from school could become criminals.

Grassroots activists who mounted their own immigrant-centered campaign as part of a mass movement of protests and student walkouts were appalled. Prop 187 was unbeatable. So, instead of attempting to co-op nativist language, they built the immigrant power that would over the following decades help transform California politics and relegate the state’s Republicans to the margins.