Latino Lawmakers Move to Reverse Decades of Anti-Immigrant Legislation

Melanie Mason, Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2014

Two decades after California voters took a hard line on illegal immigration, affirmative action and bilingual education, an ascendant class of Latino lawmakers is seeking to rewrite the books and discard the polarizing laws.

Flexing its growing clout in Sacramento, this generation of legislators is returning to the 1990s-era fights that propelled them into politics. On Monday, they will mark 20 years since Proposition 187–the landmark initiative withholding public services such as healthcare and education from those in the country illegally–qualified for the ballot.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus, said there is a satisfying “full circle” feel in revisiting these formative struggles with Latinos now empowered.

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The measure [Prop 187]–largely struck down as unconstitutional–was approved by 59% of voters in 1994. But its passage led to a surge of voter registration and political advocacy among Latinos.

In the 20 years since, Latinos have become the largest ethnic group in the state, and their share of the electorate has doubled. So has the number of Latinos in the Legislature.

“It was 187–I cannot overemphasize–that unified the community,” said Antonia Hernández, former leader of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group.

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Two years later, voters approved Proposition 209, which barred affirmative action for college admissions and public hiring decisions. And in 1998, Proposition 227, an initiative that effectively banned bilingual education in public schools, passed with 61% of the vote.

“It was a litany. It didn’t let up,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), of the successive measures. “lt just became not OK, in the eyes of far too many Californians, to even be Latino.”

Gonzalez, like Lara, was a college student when Proposition 187 was on the ballot; both attended campus rallies against it. Sen. Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), the incoming Senate leader, was a lead organizer of a massive downtown Los Angeles rally in the fall of 1994.

“I cut my teeth politically organizing immigrants,” De León said.

Now De León is pushing a bill to strip much of the language of Proposition 187 from statute. The bulk of the law was overturned by a federal court, but references to it remain in the state code. (Two provisions that survived court scrutiny dealing with false residency papers would remain law under De León’s bill.)

It is time, he said, “to erase its stain from our books.”

David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA who has written extensively about California Latinos, said that just as the state has apologized for other blemishes in its history, such as internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, so too should it acknowledge the pain felt by Latinos because of Proposition 187.

“This is one way to try to address and repair the past,” he said.

In addition, a measure by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) would repeal parts of Proposition 209 in order to allow race-conscious college admissions. And Lara is seeking to undo and amend portions of Proposition 227 in order to expand access to multilingual educational programs. Both bills, should they pass the Legislature, would need to be approved by voters in 2016.

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