The Lone Star’s Anti-Immigration Bill and California’s Prop 187: Beginning of the end or Pete Wilson 2.0?

At 3am today, following hours of debate, the Texas House of Representatives passed an anti-immigration bill aimed at profiling and deporting undocumented people. After sailing through the Texas Senate in February, Senate Bill 4 passed with a 93-54 Republican partisan vote. Several Latinx and Black legislators made impassioned attempts to dissuade the vote.

Texas Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) delivers final remarks for SB4.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott will likely sign the bill, even voicing strong support for the early morning vote. The Republican governor has also cut funds to sanctuary localities in Texas, areas that did not carry out federal immigration laws.

The Lone Star vote comes almost twenty years after a federal judge delivered the final blow to former California Governor Pete Wilson’s controversial Proposition 187, a popularly-supported ballot initiative that attempted to cut educational, medical and any other public services for undocumented immigrants and their American-born children.

SB4 works somewhat similarly. Its summary reads “Relating to the enforcement by campus police departments and certain local governmental entities of state and federal laws governing immigration and to related duties and liability of certain persons in the criminal justice system; providing a civil penalty; creating a criminal offense.” This gives local law enforcement and public education facilities – among other authorities like municipal or district employees and attorneys – jurisdiction to enforce federal and state immigration laws, and allows them to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.

According to the Texas Tribune, “The bill keeps a provision that makes sheriffs, constables and police chiefs subject to a Class A misdemeanor for failing to cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates subject to removal.” There is also a subchapter in the bill that does not apply to hospitals or charter schools, but it does apply to shelters, public school events such as football games and pre-K schools.

State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), author of SB4, told USA Today, “The Republican Party stepped up and made good on what people expected, which is protect our borders.”

But data compiled by the Texas Tribune showed that the State declined just 146 detainers between 2014 and 2016, which are requests from federal immigration authorities for local jails to hold noncitizens subject to removal before federal officials apprehend them. In contrast, the Democratic and likely sanctuary state of California has declined far more detainers. According to the Tribune, Texas officials reacted with confusion to low numbers, citing administrative errors of releasing “deportable immigrants.”

Others like Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) pointed to Republican-sponsored SB4 as discriminatory:

Contrary to the San Antonio Congressman’s light-hearted view of his state’s take on immigration, Texas has enacted anti-immigration legislation that takes similar steps, which caused some confusion with immigration attorneys.

Democratic State Representative Rafael Anchia, expressed deep opposition, even referencing President Donald Trump’s racist campaign introduction: “We are called rapists. We are called criminals. It is suggested that Latino countries don’t send their best here. Well I’m the son of immigrants and I love this country. And when my mother came here, Mexico sent her best.”

Yet while the bill looks likely to pass, it may face hurdles like a recent Northern District Court of California ruling that halted President Donald Trump’s January 25 Executive Order threatening to cut federal funds for sanctuary cities. The Texas bill’s potential, like the current administration’s botched action, may be short-lived; the impacts of the Lone Star’s legislation, however, may prove lasting.

SB4 echoes sentiments of California’s Proposition 187. In 1994, the year of my birth, my own State of California voted in favor of Proposition 187 by a margin of 59-41, with 60 percent voter turnout. The law, championed by noted dog whistler Republican Governor Wilson, attempted to racially profile Mexicans and Latinos who looked undocumented, in addition to halting any medical, educational and welfare services for undocumented people.

Losing in the polls to Democrat Kathleen Brown (sister of current Governor Jerry Brown), then-Governor Wilson employed dog whistle politics, coded political messaging that targets racial or marginalized demographics, against nonwhite immigrants through Prop 187.

Proposition 187 and Governor Pete Wilson’s racially charged television ad. 

And it worked. He had a landslide victory and got the proposition enacted by a large margin.

According to Migration News out of UC Davis, the ruling included 5 provisions: 1) to bar undocumented children from entering public education systems at all levels, in addition to verify the legal status of parents and students; 2) all publicly-funded health care providers needed to verify the legal status of people seeking medical services; 3) that welfare recipients needed to verify their status before receiving benefits; 4) service providers needed to report suspected undocumented people; and 5) using false documents (like a fake social security card) is a state felony. Using executive authority, Wilson also stopped prenatal care for undocumented people, as well as cutting services for long-term health care, like a nursing home for the elderly.


Opposition to Prop 187 in Downtown Los Angeles. Source: Immigration Impact. 

Ultimately, a November 1997 ruling by US District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer found Prop 187 to be unconstitutional, in addition to violating the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. “California is powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration,” Pfaelzer’s ruling declared. “It is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits.” Governor Gray Davis withdrew an ensuing appeal in 1999, and California officially repealed the anti-immigrant law in SB 396 in 2014.

Like Wilson’s Golden State proposition and Trump’s executive orders, SB4 may face a similar fate if challenged in court, which seems more than likely. Earlier today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas released a statement concluding “We stand with Texas immigrants.”


Pete Wilson, election night 1994. Source: NPR.

Wilson’s legacy is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of Prop 187. The Republican Californian receives nearly all credit with ruining Republican prospects in the diverse blue state, particularly due to the state’s high Latino population. I have seen these politics play out my entire life, watching changing stances in my state with regards to immigration, as well as a declining, aging, and white Republican Party lose traction in California.

But despite losing the Golden State’s pulse, Wilson’s vision has soldiered on, albeit elsewhere: Trump almost recites Wilson’s racially charged commercials, and Texas borrowed from the Prop 187 playbook to pass today’s legislation. Wilson’s politics also helped propel many Republican figures taking hardline stances on undocumented people; notably, the Republican Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives.

Wilson told the LA Times in March that he would do Prop 187 all over again, without hesitation, adding “It wasn’t scapegoating… I may have my flaws but racism is not, never has been, never will be, one of them.”

Whether Prop 187’s legal battles or Wilson’s mortal racism apply to Texas’s SB4 or the Lone Star State’s Republican-dominated politics has yet to be seen. This could be it, or it could be Wilson’s rise 2.0, 20 years later.


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