I had yet to migrate to California from the Midwest in 1994 when Proposition 187, which banned most public services for illegal immigrants, passed overwhelmingly. It received nearly 59 percent of the vote, with only a handful of Bay Area counties voting against it. The measure wasn't drafted by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, but he was its most high-profile supporter. That helped him overcome a large polling gap and win a second term by defeating Democratic Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who is Jerry Brown's sister.
As a libertarian, I oppose most public services for, well, everybody. But the statewide initiative did more than try to turn off the spigot for taxpayer-funded programs. In opposing the initiative at the time, The Orange County Register complained that "it would also introduce Big Brother elements into schools and hospitals. Immigration and welfare problems should be resolved with less government, not more." It noted that reporting "suspicious-looking immigrants…will be the conservatives' unintentional mechanism to create even more racial divisiveness."
I got a taste of that possibility shortly after moving to California. Driving through the Imperial Valley in my sports car and suit jacket, I had to slow down at one of those inland immigration checkpoints. As I approached, the uniformed official there waved me through without forcing me to stop. Meanwhile, other immigration authorities searched the cars and trucks of the other drivers, all of whom just happened to be Latino. The idea that people have to "show their papers" in the course of their everyday lives has always stuck in my craw.
But let's face it. The Prop. 187 campaign was never about a rational debate about immigration, public services and government intrusion. It was an emotional debate, fueled by frustration at the state's changing demographics. Those ads featuring grainy black-and-white photos of illegal immigrants running across the border played on fears. The initiative was blocked by the courts, but no matter. As myriad commentators have noted, the California GOP suffered a steady decline since then.
Fast forward to 2014. Democrats passed Senate Resolution 51. Its original language included the following: "That, after 20 years, the Legislature expressly acknowledges the harm caused to Californians through passage of the discriminatory and xenophobic Proposition 187 and its corresponding campaign. Its passage marked a reprehensible period for California." The final version stripped out "discriminatory and xenophobic" and other words, but still criticized Wilson by name.
That symbolic resolution was in poor taste and a reminder that Democrats aren't against promoting ethnic division to motivate their voters. But it's mainly a reminder of how quickly political fortunes can change—and how divisive language can haunt political parties for a long time. Only two years later, Donald Trump won the presidency based in part on his unyielding approach to illegal immigration. By the way, he received the lowest percentage of the California vote of any major political party candidate since 1924. And he continues to stir the immigration pot during the ongoing federal "shutdown."
It is not wrong for a country to police its borders, states to limit social services or politicians to engage in wide-ranging discussions about immigration and citizenship. My gripe is about tone and approach. All this anger about immigration (and a lack of sympathy for the poor people coming here) is not only cruel, but politically foolish. Republicans are riding high with their tweet-crazy hero at the helm, but don't be shocked if in a few years the national GOP resembles its barely existent California variant.
Immigration is a hot-button issue because it touches on the foundation of who we are as a nation. We all know the "Give me your tired, your poor" statement on the Statue of Liberty. We are indeed a nation of immigrants, many of whom came before there were any serious restrictions at all. My Dad fled Nazi Germany for the United States, so those of us with such family connections will understandably bristle at some of the current ugliness.
Ronald Reagan believed in controlling the border, but spoke sympathetically about the topic. "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life," he said in his farewell address. "But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."
It's probably too late, but unless the GOP rediscovers that inspirational approach, the party will long be saddled with the current president's rhetoric, much in the same way as the California GOP still is saddled with the fallout from Prop. 187.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.