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On immigration, is California’s odyssey America’s future?

When California voters backed an initiative in 1994 to crack down on illegal immigration, the ballot measure was titled “Save Our State.” Four years later, Californians voted to greatly restrict bilingual education.

That “woke up a sleeping giant in the Latino community,” says Lorena Gonzalez, now a member of the state Assembly and chair of the Latino Caucus. The change wasn’t immediate, but today, this is a “sanctuary state” that will not cooperate with federal officials if they carry out expected deportation raids starting Sunday. 

The story of California’s evolution on immigration may be a “window into the nation’s future,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. He and others point to the explosion of minority populations as the catalyst for change. 

Alongside that are changes in attitudes, rooted in everyday experience. In 1998, only 46% of adults believed that “immigrants are a benefit to California,” a poll by the institute found. In 2018, 72% did. Mr. Baldassare says people are “realizing and recognizing what’s in the fabric in society and what works in California.”

Pasadena, Calif.

California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has a favorite point he likes to make when talking about the southern border and immigration: America in 2019 is a lot like California in the 1990s. Then he lists disturbing characteristics that he sees in the nation today: nativism, xenophobia, scapegoating, fear of the other.

His view is that California is years beyond that – exactly 25 years, if one considers the hugely divisive ballot initiative that passed by a wide margin in November 1994. Known as “Save Our State,” Proposition 187 prohibited undocumented immigrants from using social services, such as non-emergency health care. Four years later, Californians voted to greatly restrict bilingual education.

But 187 was found unconstitutional, the bilingual restrictions were later repealed, and today this is a “sanctuary state” which will not cooperate with federal officials if they carry out expected deportation raids starting Sunday. Meanwhile, the new state budget extends health care to low-income, undocumented immigrants up to age 26. It’s one step closer to Governor Newsom’s goal of health care for all, whether legal or not.

“The sea change that has occurred since the 1990s is pretty drastic,” says Garry South, former campaign manager for Gray Davis, the Democrat who won the governorship in 1998. Like Governor Newsom, Mr. South believes that the rest of the country will eventually catch up to the Golden State, a change that will be forced by demographics and economic necessity.

SOURCE: California Department of Finance, U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, Public Policy Institute of California

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“Demographics is destiny,” says the Democratic strategist, speaking of the increase in minority populations and other changes in California and the nation. “As a whole, the United States will start looking like California and start acting like California, as more Americans start to realize that on the immigration issue particularly, it is the strength of our economy.”

Not everyone shares the view that as California goes, so goes the nation. However, the story of California’s evolution on immigration can serve as a “window into the nation’s future,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

He and others point to the explosion of minority populations as the catalyst for change in the state. By the end of the 1990s, minority groups had become the majority in California, driven by a surge in Latinos and Asians.

Throughout that decade, that surge stirred the passions, politics, and policies here. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson demanded (in vain) that Washington either control the border or pay for the drain on state coffers caused by illegal immigration. Coming off a recession and disappointing approval ratings, he backed Proposition 187 in his reelection campaign – and won.

But that “woke up a sleeping giant in the Latino community,” says Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the state Assembly and chair of the Latino Caucus.

Everyone in her now-powerful caucus has some kind of connection to that ballot initiative, internalizing the message that friends and family should not be in California, and that they were less than equal, she says.

In the wake of Proposition 187, Latino grassroots efforts drove citizenship, voter registration, and candidacies. Latinos were elected to prominent state positions, becoming part of the power structure. Today, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former member of Congress, is leading the state’s lawsuit campaign against the Trump administration, including opposition to a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the president on that case last month.

“We know it’s the Latino community that keeps California blue. It’s never forgetting what Pete Wilson put us through that pushes us forward,” says Assemblywoman Gonzalez. “I think we’ll see a similar thing nationwide after Trump.”

Along with the demographics, California has simply become a much less conservative state than it was in the early 1990s, says Mr. Baldassare, pointing out that fewer than a quarter of Californians are Republicans. That helps account for the shift in policies toward immigrants, but he says attitudes have been transformed especially by everyday life in a multicultural and multiethnic state.

“It’s been the experience of Californians in the last two decades that has really reshaped public opinion around a much more positive perception of immigrants and immigration,” he says. 

Statewide surveys by his organization show the evolution in thought. In 1998, only 46% of adults believed that “immigrants are a benefit to California.” In 2018, 72% did. A recent Gallup poll finds a similar shift nationwide since 2001.

And Californians today seem to make little distinction between immigrants who are in the state legally and those who are not. Mr. Baldassare says his polling shows 80% of Californians support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more than 60% say they should have health care. People are “realizing and recognizing what’s in the fabric in society and what works in California.”

Bill Whalen, former speechwriter for Governor Wilson, disputes the parallel that today’s governor draws between a xenophobic America in 2019 and California in the past.

“Governor Wilson clearly tried to draw a distinction between illegal and legal immigrants, and to credit those who came here for a better life. It’s the dead opposite of [President Trump’s rhetoric of] Mexico sending ‘rapists’ across the border,” says Mr. Whalen. While the president plays up national sovereignty and an “undercurrent” of America’s culture being changed, Proposition 187 was about controlling costs and frustration over stretched public services, he says.

“For Newsom to say the rhetoric then is the rhetoric now is not true.”

Mr. Whalen does agree, however, that changing demographics – particularly the rise of millennials – could alter the nation’s immigration debate over time. According to a report this week by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Hispanic population, based on census data, reached a new high in 2018 – though growth has slowed.

Many states are nowhere near “majority minority” demographics. But the South saw the fastest Hispanic population growth of any region. Though that’s traditionally been red-state territory, the politics of the South are slowly changing, as seen in statewide wins for Democratic politicians in places like Virginia and Arizona.

“We turned things around in California and we know that we have to continue to build a powerful political and human rights movement to win in the nation,” says Angelica Salas, in an email. Ms. Salas leads the immigrant-rights group Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. She credits Latino activism for drivers licenses, in-state tuition, children’s health care, workers’ rights, and better wages for undocumented immigrants in California.

But observers cite factors that mitigate any national trend: today’s polarization and different views in different regions. At the main Democratic presidential debate last month, all the candidates raised hands when asked if their health care plan would cover undocumented immigrants. That’s a view that will never fly in the middle of the country, predicts Mr. Whalen.

California may provide insight to the future course of the country, concludes Mr. Baldassare, but “I don’t think you can expect that the whole nation is going to look and think like California does today about immigration.” The polarization is too severe, and the demographic shifts won’t be the same everywhere. Also, he notes, “experiences won’t be the same.”

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