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A Progressive Political Revolution of Historic Importance

Posted on Aug 26, 2016

By Narda Zacchino

The cover of “California Comeback.” (Thomas Dunne Books)

Editor’s note: Acclaimed journalist Narda Zacchino’s new book, “California Comeback: How A ‘Failed State’ Became a Model for the Nation,” takes an in-depth look at the remarkable progressive revolution that has occurred in the Golden State. In the following excerpt from Chapter 6, titled “Diversity Trumps,” Zacchino details how California rejected the “race to the bottom” right-wing philosophy that catapulted conservative politics in recent years.

    California Comeback: How A ‘Failed State’ Became a Model for the Nation
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The setting was a presidential primary debate. Two candidates were asked a simple question: Should parents of undocumented schoolchildren in Texas have to pay for their public education, or should the students be allowed to continue their education for free?

Candidate number 1: “I would like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that that problem wouldn’t come up. But today, if those people are here, I would reluctantly say I think they would get whatever it is that the society is giving to their neighbors. But the problem has to be solved . . . Because, as we have kind of made illegal some kinds of labor that I’d like to see legal, we’re doing two things: We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family loving people that are in violation of the law and secondly we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. . . . If they’re living here I don’t want to see . . . six and eight year old kids being made . . . totally uneducated and made to feel that they’re living . . . outside the law. . . . Let’s address the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people. Part of my family is . . . Mexican.”

WATCH What Can America Learn From California?

Candidate number 2: “The time has come that the United States and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had. And I think we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size and our power. They have a problem of 40-50 percent unemployment. Now this cannot continue without the possibility of . . . trouble below the border, and we could have a hostile and strange neighbor on our border. Rather than talk about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working and earning here they pay taxes here and when they want to go back they can go back and they can cross, and open the border both ways, by understanding their problems. This [working in the United States] is the only safety valve they have from that unemployment that probably keeps the lid from blowing off down there. I think we could have a fine relationship.”

One might assume these are Democrats. But here you have the April 24, 1980, debate between George H. W. Bush (candidate number 1) and his primary opponent, Ronald Reagan—the man who is something of a deity to the swarm of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls who showed up at his presidential library in Simi Valley for their own debate in September 2015. None displayed the tolerance Reagan or Bush expressed that night in 1980 for undocumented immigrants. An exception, of course, was Jeb Bush, who is married to the “Mexican” Bush cited as “part of my family.”

Contrast Reagan’s call for an open border with Donald Trump’s tarring of border-immigrants as rapists and murderers, desire to deport the estimated eleven million unauthorized residents, and plan to deny the birthright of U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants (which is unconstitutional). His attacks on Muslims were equally harsh. Others in the Republican rabble piled on when they saw Trump’s popularity with voters growing.

What a fantastic setup for the Democratic Party. As you will see clearly demonstrated in this chapter with what happened in California in the mid-1990s, this does not bode well for the future of the Republican Party. The anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by Republican governor Pete Wilson when he was seeking reelection in 1994 drove a stake through the heart of the Republican Party in California and beyond, and the damage reverberates today.

Even Republicans in California today do not agree with Trump’s immigrant policies. A strong majority of 75 percent of Californians—including 53 percent of Republicans—believe undocumented immigrants benefit their state and should be allowed to live and work here under certain conditions, according to a statewide survey released October 1, 2015, by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The PPIC survey showed that in addition to the 53 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of people who consider themselves independent favor allowing undocumented immigrants to seek legal status. The breakdown along racial and ethnic lines was also strong, with Asians (76 percent), blacks (68 percent), Latinos (92 percent), and whites (63 percent) all heavily supportive of their undocumented family members, neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Californians are not alone in this: Nationally, 60 percent approve of a path to legal status, according to a July 2015 ABC–Washington Post poll.

Although California now enjoys a reputation for its inclusionary policies
and way of life, its history is tainted by stories of callous and sometimes brutal discrimination against its ethnic minority populations. Any boasting about multicultural California, which is discussed in this chapter, has to be leavened with remembrances of this grim history.

In the mid-1860s, more than one thousand Chinese railroad workers, constructing the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra Nevada, died in treacherous conditions. Survivors were left to live in abject poverty, under discriminatory laws, becoming victims of racial violence.

One of the most shameful periods for California—as well as the nation—involved anti-Japanese hysteria following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which led to the internment of 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese heritage. Among them were 93,000 Californians, the vast majority citizens of the United States. They lost their homes, farms, stores, and possessions, not to mention their faith in humanity, when they were sent off to prison camps where temperatures could range from more than 100 degrees to freezing, depending on the season.

Antonin Scalia, the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, told students at the University of Hawaii’s law school in February 2014 that the nation’s highest court was wrong to uphold the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and spoke words in Latin that translate: “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”

On other occasions, racial and ethnic tensions, primarily in Los Angeles, exploded. The 1943 anti-Latino zoot suit riots during World War II, for example, involved attacks on Los Angeles Latinos by white servicemen stationed in Southern California. Other examples include the 1964 racial riots in Watts and rioting that followed the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.

California, of course, was not the only state with racial tensions or a racist past, but it has proved itself a model for how to assimilate new cultures. This came after the 1990s saw the last gasps of Anglo supremacy through a series of three statewide ballot initiatives designed to retain it. Those laws would fail in that mission and, particularly with the anti-immigration Proposition 187, would help bring about the demise of the Republican Party in California.

The inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump and his followers in the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign and resulting ethnic tension were reminiscent of California under the Republican governor Pete Wilson after he thoroughly embraced Proposition 187 in 1994. In that case, as with Trump, such rhetoric was seen as a path to being elected. But as Wilson learned, the anti-immigrant tactic would have a lasting and disastrous impact on his political party in California and foreshadow a similar fate for Republicans nationally.

In the summer and fall of 1994, debate swirled around the harsh, sweeping ballot measure that would end the rights to basic public health and education services for millions of undocumented Californians. The state was a tempest of rage and hurt as the measure sailed toward passage, lashed onward by Governor Wilson, who was fighting for his political life in his reelection campaign.

Some of the biggest street protests in the state’s history ensued, with participants, including many students, defiantly brandishing Mexican flags and directly challenging the narrative that foreign-born children were an economic or cultural drain. After decades of political moderation and bipartisanship began collapsing in the tumultuous 1960s, California seemed to have reached a nadir of fractious division.

While white nativists and minority radicals rallied their troops in ever more passionate and earnest adversarial displays, two Mexican American satirists took a more nuanced approach, though not everyone got the joke. Long before Stephen Colbert’s humorous reactionary Comedy Central persona came into being, Southern Californians Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul formed a pseudo front organization, Hispanics Against Liberal Takeover—Halto—led by Alcaraz posing as phony conservative media personality Daniel D. Portado (get it—“deport-ado”?), who would argue for the “self-deportation” of those in the state illegally. It took a long while for some to realize this was satire, and some never did. In 1996, on National Public Radio’s This American Life, “D. Portado” would play his role for a seemingly unknowing Ira Glass: “Well, I am here to help everyone get out. I hope to look forward to the day where I will stand at the border and say, ‘Will the last Mexican out of California please turn out the lights?’ That will be me.”

Back in 1994, out of the blue it seemed, supporters of the so-called “Save Our State” initiative had been handed a handsome, eloquent Latino supporter of their radical anti-immigrant position. Alcaraz/Portado appeared on Spanish-language media powerhouse Telemundo to make the case for “self-deportation centers,” with Zul playing his wary bodyguard. “Neither the participants nor the producers were aware of our true identity,” Zul later told the Chicago Reader. “It was the longest half-hour of my life.”

It did not take long for the most ardent supporter of Prop 187, Governor Wilson, to join the Halto chorus. As he opined in a postelection interview with New York Times conservative columnist William Safire, who was opposed to Prop 187: “If it’s clear to you that you cannot be employed, and that you and your family are ineligible for services, you will self-deport.”

The “self-deportation” idea would be roundly mocked eighteen years later when proffered by Mitt Romney in a presidential debate. Daniel D. Portado returned to the issue to leverage some serious satire out of Romney’s gaffe. The fallout from Romney’s self-deportation remark was still reverberating in 2013, when the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus referred to it as “horrific.”

But in California, in 1994, the anti-immigrant tidal wave Wilson was riding was real. The governor, who early in the race had been badly trailing Jerry Brown’s sister, former state treasurer Kathleen Brown, had thrown in all his chips on the hot-button immigration issue, just as Donald Trump would two decades later. Once a moderate San Diego mayor and U.S. senator, Wilson stoked a surge of xenophobia that was markedly uncharacteristic of his political past, joining the cause of a portion of the electorate that was much older and whiter than the state’s overall fast-changing demographic.

The concept of making life so difficult for immigrants they’ll leave became a sentiment that has gained momentum in recent years, led in part by Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach of Kansas, who helped draft the Arizona law that required state and local law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they stopped and had “reasonable suspicion” to believe were in the country illegally.

That law, key elements of which the U.S. Supreme Court jettisoned, was one of a slew of harsh and hotly controversial laws in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and other states that restrict access to benefits and jobs and step up law enforcement harassment of immigrant communities in order to deter new arrivals or long stays by foreign visitors. Some new laws have been struck down over the same flaw in Proposition 187: impingement on the federal power to make and enforce immigration law.

Proposition 187 was certainly designed to cause as much misery as possible for undocumented immigrants and their families. The initiative would have made them ineligible for public social services, including child welfare payments or foster care; public health-care services “unless emergency under federal law”; and public education at all levels.  It would have required state and local government agencies to report suspected undocumented immigrants to the California attorney general and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), today’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In addition, the manufacture, distribution, sale, or use of phony citizenship or residence documents would be a felony. The INS estimated there were roughly 1.6 million undocumented immigrants in California, and the number was rising by 125,000 each year, according to the initiative’s ballot summary.

The measure targeted a fast-growing number of undocumented workers who, like today, were filling jobs most Californians generally refused to do—the dirtiest, most poorly paid gigs in agriculture, manufacturing, garment sweatshops, and restaurant kitchens, in addition to staffing the homes and gardens of the wealthy. Proposition 187 asked its recession-scarred voters to use a denial of basic government services—public health care and education—as a chokehold.

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