Gustavo Arellano was a high school student in Anaheim in 1994, when Proposition 187 roiled the state, aiming to stop illegal immigration by denying education and other social services to illegal immigrants. Now Arellano is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, which last week marked the proposition's 25th anniversary by publishing his story of how it jolted Latinos to the anti-Republican political activism that has turned the California electoral map to the deep, defiant blue of a sanctuary state.
Arellano's story is a good read, written in the uniquely Mexican-American voice he first displayed in his "Ask a Mexican" column in the Orange County Weekly. Witty, sarcastic, even provocative in his assertions of brown nationalism, Arellano comes across as part Cheech Marin and part Bart Simpson, especially in the three-part podcast in which he tells the same story for the Latino USA radio program
Arellano, 40, was born in the United States, about a year after his father crossed the border in the trunk of a Chevrolet. He has no use for terms like "illegal" or "alien" to identify those who break immigration law. He explains, "I have a different name for them: friends, family, the people I grew up with, people I interview for stories in the LA Times, and my dad."
So as a high school student, Arellano took it personally when California's Republican Governor Pete Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1994 with a television spot whose grainy, sepia-toned footage showed "shadowy hordes swarming the U.S.-Mexico border like they're orcs or something." And he took it personally when white teenagers — who had no way to know his legal status — taunted him with shouts of "187! 187!" He was a Mexican, and for them that was "no different from being illegal."
Arellano acknowledges that the widespread display of Mexican flags in massive protest marches backfired, galvanizing support for the proposition. But he defends the tactic as legitimate self-defense, reasoning: "You're not going to accept me as an American. I might as well tick you off as a Mexican."
Arellano writes of the anguish he and fellow students felt when voters overwhelmingly approved 187. The young Latinos wondered if immigration authorities would show up at school, demanding proof of legal status. They feared for parents, classmates, cousins who had crossed the border illegally. Then they used the years when the proposition was hung up in legal challenges to become politically engaged. The proposition ultimately withered when the state dropped its challenge to a court ruling that 187 was unconstitutional.
Twenty-five years after the great upheaval, Arellano sarcastically strikes a pose of gratitude to Wilson, saying 187 was the seed of his career in journalism. He points to a new video in which two dozen members of the California Latino Legislative Congress repeat the mocking refrain "Thank you Pete Wilson" for igniting the movement that has routed the Republican Party.
Arellano's story is certainly a legitimate way for theTimes to mark a major anniversary of a transformational episode in California history. It is a poignant explanation of the defensive reaction that is inevitable when a group of people feels targeted because of who they are. Mormons understand that, as do Catholics, Jews, and others.
Arellano's story should be understood by those of us who believe that the federal government is obligated to set immigration limits and enforce them. If we press our case with compassion along with firmness, and if we are willing to compromise in the search for immigration, we will have a better chance of being heard. We will have more reason to expect others to recognize the need for limits.
But having presented one side of the story so forcefully, the Los Angeles Times now has the journalistic responsibility to acknowledge that powerful arguments were made in support of Proposition 187. Back in 1994, even when a Times editorial called Wilson "utterly, totally, hopelessly wrong" on the proposition, it endorsed his reelection. They praised his ability to "draw attention on the national stage to the plight of states trying to come to terms with problems that that ought to be federal responsibility."
Then as now, the fiscal and social consequences of illegal immigration head the list of those problems. It was the failure of federal enforcement of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that allowed the mass illegal immigration that prompted Proposition 187. Now no proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform" can succeed without a commitment to enforce the limits included in those proposals. In the future, illegal immigrants must be stopped — not because of who they are, but because their cumulative effects on American society involve too many strains on civil society, social solidarity, the rule of law, and fiscal health.