California offers a glimpse 20 years into the future

The rise of Latino power in California began with Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny services to unauthorized immigrants.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
A volunteer (right) looks to register new voters in a Latino neighborhood on Sept. 27, 2016, ahead of the presidential election that year.

As this week’s cover story writer, Francine Kiefer, will tell you, there was one source about the history and future of California who was always atop the must-call list. When I was our Northern California correspondent in the 2000s, Kevin Starr was that rarest of interviews: someone who could succinctly and reliably blow your mind – using his remarkable depth of knowledge to see sweeping trends in original ways.

This is the one comment from him that I have never forgotten: California is dealing with developing-world challenges in a first-world context.

Francine’s cover story brings back that memory today. Her story is about the long-anticipated rise of Latino power in California and what that could presage for the country. And the crux of her story is Proposition 187. The ballot initiative, passed overwhelmingly in 1994, sought to deny public services to unauthorized immigrants.

Though it was eventually struck down by the courts, Proposition 187 planted the seeds for a new era of Latino advocacy. It was seen as an attack on Latino dignity and humanity, and it played no small part in bringing down the Republican establishment that supported it. In California state government, Republicans are such a minority today that they are essentially irrelevant.

Fear played an important role in Proposition 187. The idea of an immigrant wave taking over the country remains potent and present in politics across the United States. But the late Mr. Starr’s comment years ago has always forced me to consider a different perspective, too.

Illegal immigration put strains on the Golden State’s public services. For many people who grew up in the era of the California Dream during the 1950s, California used its state largesse to build the best roads and the best universities, and to undertake water projects of awesome (and environmentally devastating) scope. Its financial might was used to create something approaching a middle-class Utopia.

A large part of that middle class saw Proposition 187 as a last-ditch attempt to save that vision – to make California great again, if you will. Was that group overwhelmingly white? Did societal structures make it hard for people of color to share that dream? Yes and yes. But illegal immigration was also far, far greater than it is today. It was reshaping California. While Proposition 187 was tinged with racial fears, it also had roots in other widely held concerns. To use Mr. Starr’s words: how to stem the developing-world challenges that are significantly fueled through an illegal process.

The past 25 years have proved an insightful epilogue. A quarter of the state Legislature is now Latino. California remains America’s most powerful economic engine, the world’s fifth-largest economy. And a majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the state now view immigrants as a net positive. 

California has long been a glimpse of the nation 20 years in the future. At this moment of division over immigration, that is perhaps more poignant than ever.

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