California Latinos have become more skeptical of undocumented immigrants. What changed?

RAISING THEIR BANNERS: Immigrants and supporters gather on Olympic Boulevard and Broadway during one of two marches in Los Angeles that drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in 2006.
(Brian Van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

California Latinos have become more skeptical of undocumented immigrants. What changed?

California politics, immigration and the border, homepage news

Gustavo Arellano

February 9, 2024

For the past quarter century, Democratic politicians in California have operated under the maxim that the more laws passed to protect people in this country without legal status, the better.

Lawmakers in Sacramento have passed bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, pay tuition at public universities and receive Medi-Cal. California declared a “sanctuary state,” barring local law enforcement agencies from assisting federal immigration agents. School districts have agreed to expand voting rights to undocumented parents. Cities and counties have contributed municipal funds to help residents caught up in deportation proceedings.

This is the legacy of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that was overwhelmingly passed by California voters who sought to make life miserable for undocumented immigrants. It never took effect because a federal judge declared it unconstitutional, but it forever changed the Golden State and demonstrated the political power of Latinos.

Proposition 187 was so hated by Latinos that an LA Times exit poll found that only 23% of us voted for it, compared to 63% of whites. Those of us who came of age during that time renounced the Republican Party and committed themselves to creating a kinder state. We helped transform California from politically purple to bluer than Lake Tahoe. We taught activists in other states how to combat the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant template, which has spread across the country and reached all the way to the Trump White House.

Academics, activists and politicians continue to cite Proposition 187 as a cautionary tale for underestimating Latino power. But there is a risk in bringing the past into the present. That’s why Democrats should be concerned about polls showing that in California, Latino support for undocumented immigrants and measures to help them have steadily eroded over the past two decades.

As early as 2001, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the gap between whites and Latinos on whether illegal immigration was a “problem” was nearly half the gap between the groups on Proposition 187. In 2012, asked in an LA Times poll whether Californians would support the return of Proposition 187, found that a third of Latinos said yes, just 18 percentage points less than whites. A 2019 Public Policy Institute of California survey found that at a time of highly publicized migrant caravans, 75% of Latinos thought illegal border crossings were a crisis or serious problem, more than the 70% of whites who felt the same thought about.

And the shift continues. A December survey of more than 3,000 Latinos in eight states by UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, found that California Latinos were more open to increasing border security than Latinos in Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. We tied for last place with Florida because we wanted the government to provide a path to citizenship for so-called dreamers. Of all the states, we were the least likely to want to increase legal immigration or allow amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Asked in the UnidosUS survey to rank their top three issues, California Latinos rated immigration sixth, behind the cost of living, lack of affordable housing and crime.

Last month, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey on border security co-sponsored by The Times found that 63% of Latinos in California view undocumented immigrants as a burden, compared with 79% of whites. As for the country’s asylum laws, 33% of Latinos described them as too lenient, compared to 39% of whites. Latinos were slightly more likely than whites to say stricter laws would be “effective” in reducing the number of migrants seeking asylum. On almost every question, there was little gap between Latinos who are English-dominant and Latinos who prefer Spanish as a substitute for natives and immigrants.

In this 30th anniversary year, as Californians reflect on the legacy of Proposition 187, and the importance of paying attention to these polls. The number of arrests for illegal crossings from Mexico reached a record high in December. Even President Biden is vowing to close the border rather than roll out the proverbial welcome mat. That Latinos in California, whose growth has been largely due to immigration, legal and otherwise, are becoming almost as skeptical of unchecked illegal immigration as their white neighbors is a sad, if inevitable, milestone.

This will not automatically translate into more Latinos voting Republican. It means the era of open borders in California is coming to an end. Last month, the UC Board of Regents declined to move forward with a long-promised policy of hiring undocumented students without work permits. Amid loud cheers and shouts of cowards, the regents heeded the advice of President Michael V. Drake, who warned of the legal risks.

That may not have been the result at the time


Trump was in power when the gentlemen of California fell over themselves to challenge his administration on everything related to illegal immigration.

This hardening by Latinos doesn’t surprise me. In a state where an estimated 83% of Latinos are of Mexican descent, according to census data analyzed by UCLA’s Latino Politics and Policy Institute, the changing faces of illegal immigration are drawing less and less empathy. I have seen this within my own family.

When undocumented immigrants became my uncles and aunts, we greeted them as heroes. They told stories about confrontations

the migration

, as if they were in a Benny Hill skit. To this day, decades after becoming an American citizen, my father proudly calls himself one


a wetback.

//<< seems fine to me, but marks for masthead approvaljp//

But when Mexicans started coming from southern states with larger indigenous populations, my relatives considered them unemployed


lazy people who didn’t like it



As tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America entered this country over the past decade, sympathy for them among my relatives went hand in hand with grumbling about who should care for them. Everyone is now thinking about Venezuelan migrants. At a recent family party, a distant cousin, who came to this country undocumented as a young man, ranted about Venezuelans supposedly getting free food and shelter in New York, with all the xenophobic fanfare of Fox News. host.

He said this even when the community center hosting our party closed us down because of the tubas and trombones from the

banda sinaloense

were too loud.

Since the battle over Proposition 187, Latinos have considered themselves California’s moral conscience. We continue to show kindness toward undocumented immigrants, especially, of course, the political class, many of whom came of age in an age of bigotry. Advocates continue to demonize white people who oppose illegal immigration as uncaring racists.

But sooner rather than later, Latinos will become indistinguishable from them when it comes to this issue that has torn us apart for so long.

And then what?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Hot Topics

Related Articles