A sign in Spanish urges Lations to register to vote. Photo by Chris Stone

California’s top two Latino political leaders celebrated the 25th anniversary of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 on Friday as both a “hopeful story” about America and a cautionary tale for current voices of nativism.

“In less that 25 years since the passage of Proposition 187, California today is a sanctuary state,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, calling reaction to the ballot measure “one of the most impactful moments in California’s political trajectory.”

Prop 187 sought to ban undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefits, including health care, education, and social services. Then Republican Gov. Pete Wilson prominently supported the measure, which most observers credit with helping him win re-election in 1994.

It passed 59% to 41%, but was later ruled unconstitutional. More significantly, it sparked an upsurge of political involvement by California’s growing Latino population. Both Padilla and Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said during a press conference on the anniversary that Prop 187 changed their lives.

“I had no choice but to get involved in government, in politics, because we were going to be a target,” said Padilla, whose parents had lived in the United States for 30 years but were not yet citizens.

Becerra noted that Prop 187 was not the last time that immigrant bashing has been used to win an election. President Trump famously began his campaign in 2015 by labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers.

“The Trump election can be traced right back to Proposition 187 because the proponents of 187 figured out what worked on a short-term basis,” Becerra said.

Since then, the once powerful California Republican Party has faded in both voter registrations and the polls. Today no statewide elected official is a Republican.

Becerra predicted growing Latino voter registration will have a major impact on the 2020 election, turning Texas, Florida, Georgia and possibly North Carolina into swing states.

“2016 was a watershed year for Latinos and voting, and 2020 can be an even better election year,” he said.

Both elected leaders said the history of Prop 187 and its effect on California is ultimately a message of optimism and hope.

“We have demonstrated in California that the best way to overcome these threats and attacks is through civic engagement,” said Padilla. “There is a story of hope to all this as we tackle the issues ahead.”

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.