Links in the Chain of Reaction: Proposition 187 and the Movements to Abolish Affirmative Action and Welfare Rights in the U.S.

Author(s): Flavio Risech-Ozeguera
Date Published: July 16, 2006

Last November, many of us saw California's Proposition 187 as just the tip of a large and dangerous iceberg in the foggy waters of US race relations, not just because of its clear impingement on civil rights protections for noncitizens but because it ultimately threatens the freedoms of all Americans. The immediate concern last fall was of course with the undocumented, not only because of that draconian ballot measure which passed by a 2 to 1 margin, but because of the growing acceptability in mainstream political discourse of such notions as Pete Wilson's call to strip citizenship from the US born children of the undocumented and to deploy the national armed forces to patrol the Mexican border. Immigrants were increasingly being demonized and criminalized, and the distinctions between the illegal and the legal seemed to blur as those between natives and "others" were more sharply drawn.

Even then there were more troubling signs of danger to a much broader range of people, especially in the Republican Contract with America, which threatens to cut off all public assistance to legal immigrants, including those who have respected US laws, paid taxes and contributed to the building of this country just like the mythologized histories and sociologies claim "good" immigrants are supposed to do. The bill would cut off 60 different federal aid programs to noncitizens, including battered women's services, hot lunches for the elderly and handicapped, and immunizations for school age children.

But the targets of the Contract are not just foreigners. Reactionary ideas increasingly went mainstream last fall, such as Charles Murray's claim that illegitimacy is America's greatest problem, not to mention his controversial book The Bell Curve. Single mothers, especially very young ones, were singled out as targets and threatened with termination of public assistance and institutionalization of their children. While racial considerations are clearly in play in this discourse, the fact that more than half of all welfare mothers are white should put everyone on notice that these threats go well beyond racial categories. Perhaps soon the only social programs we will have left will be the prison systems.

Still, I for one was taken aback by the vehemence and suddenness of the new ballot initiative to abolish affirmative action in California, dubbed "Son of 187". Most disturbingly, it has caught on as a national trend to reject one of the very few policy efforts, whatever its defects, to meaningfully address racial inequities in this country. By framing the debate as a constitutional crusade to end unfair racial preferences and institute colorblind policies, proponents at once deny that racial inequities exist and cast those who disagree with them as the real racists.

For those who think their skin color or class position holds them harmfree from this assault on civil rights, consider the recommendations of the US Commission on Immigration Reform last fall to institute a computerized national registry of all US citizens and residents and issuance of national identity documents to everyone to prove one's right to work or live in the US to any law enforcement officer who might inquire. One might also examine the long list of civil rights violations against Latino Americans in California since the passage of Prop 187, which show that even US citizenship is no guarantee against xenophobic and discriminatory treatment.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of all this is the abject failure of President Clinton to provide effective leadership in the face of the growing wave of racism, xenophobia and class animosity. His 1995 State of the Union message spoke of illegal aliens taking American jobs, sponging public resources and engaging in criminality, thus repeating and thereby cloaking with Presidential authority all of the myths about immigrants which are thoroughly refuted by most of the reputable empirical research. Eliding status illegality with criminal behavior, he promised to swiftly deport as many "criminal aliens" as possible, and to secure the border between Mexico and the US. More recently he has sought to take the affirmative action issue away from the Right, by promising to "review" and discard programs which resulted in unfair reverse discrimination, without proposing any meaningful alternatives. And his agreement with the idea of ending welfare "as we know it" (whatever that means) and stigmatizing teen mothers is well-known.

In some ways, of course, the rhetoric of xenophobia is the part of this rightward drift which is least effectively challenged, in part because immigrants are so easy to vilify and have relatively little political clout with which to fight back. I think this helps to explain Clinton's jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon: the political costs of doing so are minor and the payoffs significant. The most recent example of this was the May 2 agreement to repatriate would-be Cuban refugees: reversing a 35-year policy of providing asylum to large numbers of Cubans, the President scored points with the anti-immigrant forces of Florida who are poised to push a Prop. 187 clone there. His alienation of the Cuban American community and diehard anti-Castro Americans will cost Clinton few re-election votes, since those most outraged probably would vote Republican anyway. By contrast, his "get tough on illegals" stance-now including Cubans, Florida's largest immigrant group, for the first time-is calculated to appeal to more moderate and paradoxically, more xenophobic, sectors in the nation's fourth most populous state.

Yet it is Mexican immigration that generates the most reactionary response, if only because Mexicans make up the bulk of legal and illegal immigrants. Whether we like it or not, legal and illegal immigration from Mexico to the US will continue, regardless of the measures taken to stop it, for several important reasons:

1. There are around 16 million people of Mexican origin in the US, most of whom are legal residents, many of whom have close relatives who would like to join their families in the US. Hundreds of thousands are currently on waitlists for immigrant visas that can already take ten years or more to process. Unless we are prepared to scrap the philosophical underpinnings of our immigration policies since 1965 and deny family reunification as a legitimate and central basis for immigrating, the enormous pressure for legal entry will continue. If we do deny it, the pressure for illegal migration will only multiply.

2. Common sense dictates that the wide economic disparities between the two countries will continue to generate migratory pressure. Interestingly, the Mexican fiscal crisis of the recent months promises to increase the pressure, as US mandated austerity measures, coupled with currency devaluations, push living standards down. One economist estimates that for every 10% devaluation of the peso, there may be a 17% increase in migration. Note that as of mid March alone, the peso had lost about 50% of its value since the crisis began on December 20.

Human rights abuses in the Chiapas region, US cultural penetration and the longstanding practices of frequent border crossing by millions of Mexicans are other reasons various scholars identify for why measures like Proposition 187 will not serve to stem the so-called flood of immigrants, which incidentally, are proportionately quite a bit smaller than the influxes of European immigrants in the early 20th century.

The arguments supporting Prop 187 and similar anti-immigrant measures, and those undergirding much of the discourse against undocumented immigrants, are primarily based on the research of one Donald Huddle, a Texas academic whose claims that immigrants cost California $18 billion a year have been sharply contested by other studies. Though it might be enough for some to show that Huddle's work is financed by and linked to rightwing groups like the pseudo-environmentalist Carrying Capacity Network, more persuasive refutation can be found in Jeffrey Passel's Urban Institute study, released in November 1994, which points out serious problems with the data and interpretation. The more significant of these are:

1. Huddle's projections assume that no immigrants die or leave the country after 1992, and assumes that all immigrants who enter after 1994 pay no taxes at all;

2. His estimate of the undocumented population is about 50% too large;

3. His estimate of the legal immigrant population is about 27% too large;

4. He omits immigrant payments of Social Security taxes from his calculations and severely understates other immigrant contributions through tax revenues from immigrant-owned businesses or the indirect benefits related to immigrants' consumer spending.

Passel's study concludes that rather than costing California $18 billion, immigrants in fact generate a net contribution there of around $12 billion. That's a $30 billion difference.

So now we know that Prop 187, and by extension much of the anti-immigrant movement, is predicated on discredited economic data. Unfortunately, that does not seem to make too much difference to a large number of Americans, since racial and cultural otherness and not simple economics is what's really at the heart of the matter. Proposition 187 is not a new phenomenon but rather one which has deep roots in American history. It's only the latest in a long line of actions against foreigners, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which have traditionally been deployed at moments of heightened tensions when profound economic insecurities and perceived threats to the stability of the racial order intersect. It is up to progressive activists, working in coalition with directly affected immigrant constituencies, to resist the current wave of scapegoating and hate mongering which has spread alarmingly through U.S. society. As I have suggested, the immigration issue is part and parcel of the Right's assault on the right to equality and fair treatment that most Americans take for granted. Because they are one of the most vulnerable segments of the US population, the assault on immigrants, unless challenged effectively, may open the way for further erosion of the rights of Americans of color, women and the poor. Political organizing and resistance at all levels are needed to reverse the dismaying trends of blaming victims for their own mistreatment and scapegoating the powerless for the benefit of the powerful.

Flavio Risech-Ozeguera teaches law and ethnic studies at Hampshire College. He writes frequently on immigration issues and formerly practiced immigration law.