Ben Monterroso, a Mexican-born labor leader in Los Angeles, is now a U.S. citizen because of California’s Proposition 187, which once denied services to illegal immigrants. Chris Watford, born and raised in Roswell, is now an anti-immigration activist because of that same law’s legacy.
Come Election Day, both will watch Arizonans vote on Proposition 200, an immigration law known as “son of 187” that will require proof of citizenship to vote and to get state and local public assistance.
Depending on the outcome, Watford’s group, Georgians for Immigration Reform, may support such a measure in Georgia in the future.
“I think it would pass if the people here got as mobilized as people in Arizona are,” he said.
Ten years ago, California voters decisively approved 187, a law requiring local police to enforce immigration laws and denying education and emergency medical services to illegal immigrants.
“It was one of those defining moments in American political history,” said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster on Hispanic issues.
“It was the loudest and clearest taxpayer rebellion since the Boston Tea Party,” said Pete Wilson, then-governor of California and 187’s most visible supporter.
Proposition 187 was challenged in court the day after Californians voted it in, and much of it was eventually thrown out. But it lit a fuse that burns across a transformed nation, from inner-city Los Angeles to suburban Atlanta.
Because of 187, Latinos became citizens in record numbers and emerged as a highly politicized voting bloc that turned the tables in California and could wield significant national influence on Election Day.
According to an analysis from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Latino share of all naturalizations in the United States grew steadily from 27 percent in 1994, to almost 35 percent in 1995, 47 percent in 1996 and 41 percent in 1997. The share did not drop back to 1994 levels until 2003.
Those naturalized citizens had high turnouts in California elections following passage of 187: nearly 75 percent in 1996, nearly 70 percent in 1998, and almost 71 percent in 2002.
In Georgia, Latino registered voters are now estimated at about 77,000, according to the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Monterroso works as regional head of the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles, talking daily with immigrants who are the janitors and waiters and dishwashers his union represents. He was 18 when he arrived illegally in that city in 1977. By 1994 he had a green card, but he felt no need to take the next step and become a citizen. The 1994 election changed his mind.
“Since I came to this country, I’ve done nothing but work to improve myself and support my family,” he says. “I don’t believe there is any crime in that.”
Like Latinos in California and across the country, Monterroso filled out the forms and went to the interviews after 187 passed. As it wound through the courts, he talked neighbors and co-workers into becoming citizens. On the day he took the oath, 25 relatives and friends raised their right hands with him.
Now, Monterroso preaches voter participation. He even asked Los Angeles County to make his home a polling place. On Nov. 2, precinct voters will come to his garage to cast their ballots.
“At my house,” he said, “whoever doesn’t vote gets punished.”
Watford says he has no problem with legal immigrants, wherever they are from. But he has watched his community change because of those who are here illegally.
He likes Arizona’s Proposition 200 because he believes there is a real chance that, given the ease of registering to vote in some states, illegal immigrants might actually vote in elections. He believes citizenship should not be automatically bestowed on children born in the United States to illegal immigrants.
“It’s not right,” he says. “That’s a dangerous part of the Constitution to have in this day and age.”
Because of 187, immigration became a much more emotional issue. Anti-immigrant groups took root across the United States, and politicians began to stay away from what has become an explosive issue.
Monterroso believes Latino immigrants are more embattled than ever when they push for their rights. Watford, on the other hand, feels he can’t state his immigration worries without being called a racist.
He knows how Californians felt when 59 percent of voters approved 187. He’s feeling the same way now.
Watford runs Call of the Wild, a family-owned mountain climbing shop. He says he watched Mexican and Central American laborers flood into his metro Atlanta hometown after 1996 to take low-paying construction and day-labor jobs, bargaining on street corners with contractors who picked them up on the spot.
“I used to think there was a job for everyone who came here,” he said. “But then I saw 250 people standing around down the road from my house. How do you deal with hundreds of people standing around?”
Later, he wondered why coin-operated laundries and check-cashing stores were sprouting in a town where most residents supposedly had washing machines and bank accounts.
“It hits me, driving in my hometown, why can’t I read that sign?” he says, exasperated, about advertisements in Spanish that cater to Latinos.
The Migration Policy Institute says that the foreign-born population in the United States grew by 57 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 19.8 million to 31.1 million. Most of them are from Latin America, with 29.5 percent, the largest percentage by far, from Mexico.
In Georgia, the foreign-born population grew by 233 percent in the same decade. Most of them are also from Latin America, with 33 percent from Mexico.
“When Proposition 187 passed, I thought that was a California problem,” Watford said. “I thought . . . that kind of thing could never happen here. But now I understand how it could happen here.”
After 187, militant anti-immigrant organizations retreated to the margins in California, said Tom Saenz, of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which had challenged 187 in the courts after its passage by voters.
But like immigrants, they moved into other states. From Colorado to Ohio to Georgia, they pulled together and sometimes hosted Californian anti-immigrant leaders at rallies.
“Georgia is at the front of the arc [of reaction to the problem],” said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration think tank based in Washington. “Immigrants’ arrival has been sudden, the numbers are high, the impact is visible and the infrastructure is unprepared.”
Watford, who has traveled in Mexico and South America, understands that migrants need to make a living. And he knows they wouldn’t come here if employers didn’t hire them. He rails at the administration and Congress in Washington for passing laws against hiring cheaper illegal migrants but then focusing enforcement elsewhere. He believes the system turns a blind eye to illegal immigrant hiring in return for employers’ political contributions.
At the same time, he feels those same politicians shy away from discussing an issue that has become deeply important to him, his friends, and millions in communities across the United States.
President Bush in January outlined a plan to let guest workers enter the United States legally and temporarily, but the backlash from within Bush’s own base was so strong that he has not mentioned it again. Members of Congress have introduced other plans, but those, too, languish.
Listening to voters
After 187 was struck down by the courts, some of its provisions were incorporated into federal laws passed by Congress in 1996 that seemed to take note of how voters in California—- and increasingly, the country—- felt about immigration.
The laws barred both legal and illegal immigrants’ access to federal welfare assistance, restricted noncitizens’ access to state and local welfare programs, and tightened the rules on sponsoring foreign workers.
Even so, nothing that the government did actually eased illegal immigration, and the costs to states continued to spiral.
Ten years later, another proposition in another state is sending another message. Proposition 200 got on the Arizona ballot with help from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group for immigration limits.
Supporters say they studied 187 to make 200 “bulletproof” in the courts. Recent public opinion polls show 42 percent of Arizona voters support it and 29 percent oppose it.
But opponents say 200, like 187, will do nothing to stop illegal immigration. And, they say, it will be expensive to enforce. Some say 200 is the tail end of an outdated, militant response to the problem.
“I think 200 is more of a last gasp rather than a new wildfire,” Sharry said.
Watford isn’t so sure. He is not willing to predict 200’s fate in Arizona, but he believes something must be done—- and quickly.
“It’s going to get ugly if it’s not dealt with now,” Watford said. “I think immigration is the No. 1 issue we face in this country, beyond even terrorism.”