Immigrant Activism And The Legacy Of Proposition 187
Friday, November 8, 2019
Photo by Matthew Bowler
Twenty-five years ago today, California voters passed Proposition 187, which barred people, in the state illegally, from receiving public benefits or attending public schools. While the proposition never took effect, it ushered in a generation of immigrant activists that has transformed the state.
One of those is Itzel Maganda Chavez, who was born the same year Prop 187 was passed.
She's a DACA-recipient from Mexico.
To her, Proposition 187 is the world she entered; one where the lives of undocumented people hung in the political balance.
"I think there's remnants of it, growing up in the border region because I grew up fearing police," Chavez said. "And if my mom was driving us to school, to the grocery store I remember feeling significant fear if there was a police officer behind us."
For Christian Ramirez, his political awakening took place during the fight over Prop. 187 when he was a freshman at San Diego State University. Growing up with family on both sides of the border in San Diego and Tijuana, he was shocked when Prop. 187 passed with a two-thirds majority.
"I lived in a bubble. I thought there was no way this measure was going to pass," he said.
Ramirez, who now works for the labor union SEIU, is part of the generation that turned their shock into power. They sprang into action in the years following 187's passage to usher in California's Dream Act, which gave undocumented students access to college. California also provided undocumented people with driver's licenses and severely limited the ways in which local law enforcement could interact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
His generation found out that it had to build a larger movement to overcome the resentment of the immigrant community.
"We learned that in order for us to be able to win, we had to have a strategy that allowed us to build broad coalitions to employ every single means available to us to push for the kind of change that we're beginning to see in California now," Ramirez said.
Chavez gives an example of those new coalitions.
"Sitting in a room with 10 folks from the immigrant community and 10 folks from the LGBTQ community, and having a conversation about coming out. And how that story was very similar, in a sense, as an undocumented person telling friends that you're in a different status... was similar to the LGBTQ community coming out to family and friends," Chavez told KPBS.
For Chavez, the Obama-era executive order that allowed her to live and work in the US pushed her into activism.
She now works as an organizer for the group Alliance San Diego, in the hope that an organized community could avoid another Proposition 187 moment. At the same time, the Trump administration has folded some of Proposition 187 into national policy.
"I do think that if we want to get systematic change, it's not about who's in office, It's about changing the structures that allowed politicians to make the moves that they're making," Chavez said.
Andrea Tecpoyotl-Tepale is another DACA recipient and is currently a student at the University of San Diego. She got to go to college thanks to California's DREAM Act. She didn't learn about Proposition 187 until she was a freshman in college, showing just how far this moment has receded in popular memory.
"I didn't learn about it. I didn't realize or learn about Prop. 187 until a couple of years ago, and I didn’t realize so much had happened right here on this border that I didn’t even get to learn about," Tecpoyotl-Tepale told KPBS.
Still, she's fighting essentially the same battle as the students who kicked off protests 25 years ago. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over the Trump administration's cancellation of the DACA program.
"When DACA was rescinded in 2017, I had the normal reaction any undocumented student would have," she said. "Fear. Anger. I was really frustrated and upset and sad. And I could continue to be sad and frustrated, or I could do something about it."
Next week, Andrea will be leading campus protests against the cancellation of DACA, renewing a long tradition of activism that has achieved huge gains for immigrants in California in the 25 years since Proposition 187.
At the same time, for many undocumented immigrants across the country, today is looking a lot like 1994.
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