We now have scientific evidence that it takes Republican politicians 22 years to forget the lessons of anti-immigrant politics. Poised to repeat history, the GOP and Donald Trump have decided to shoot the party’s long-term fortunes in the foot by catering to calls for a deportation war against the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. It is an echo of a similar move that California Republicans made more than two decades ago, one that sent the party into the political wilderness for a span that rivals that of Moses’s journey through the desert. Here is how it came about the last time and what it says about GOP politics this time around.
When I was a young legislative assistant and public-interest advocate in the California State Capitol in the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like we would never escape the reign of Republican governors. In the aftermath of eight years of wild and youthful leadership under the 30-something version of Jerry Brown, we were given Governor George Deukmejian. The state attorney general rode to the governorship as a champion of the death penalty and never thought a sentence complete unless it included the word “crime.” When his eight years were up, we got San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, a supposed GOP moderate. History, however, will remember Wilson as the inventor of the “Great Republican Anti-Immigrant Boomerang.”
Today Donald Trump yells out his plan to build a wall across the United States’ southern border. It was, ironically, the fall of a different wall that helped set the Republican Party’s extreme anti-immigrant politics in motion. Two and a half decades ago, in the space of just a few years, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire disintegrated, and the long Cold War finally thawed. One byproduct of that turn of history was a major cutback in the lucrative defense and aerospace contracts—the tech industry of the day—that had helped make the Golden State golden.
These cuts came in the midst of a national recession, and nearly a million high-wage jobs evaporated with the cutback, taking the state’s economy and tax revenue along with it. Unemployment boomed, and spending on things like schools and libraries took a huge hit. Wilson may not have caused the crisis, but as he looked ahead, he saw it careening directly into his reelection against Brown’s younger sister, Kathleen, at the time the state treasurer. He pulled out the default Republican pledges of cutting taxes and cutting waste from the budget, but this alone wasn’t working.
On the right-wing fringes of the party, however, there were others who knew exactly what was needed to fix California—bring the hammer down on undocumented immigrants. While it was no small stretch to blame immigrant day-laborers for the loss of engineering jobs or the massive hole in the state budget, the anti-immigrant movement did so and peddled the tale hard.
Wilson and Republicans in the legislature dipped their toes into the anti-immigrant waters cautiously, with modest proposals for reforms such as requiring public hospitals to count the number of undocumented people receiving services. Beyond the capitol though, fringe activists had something far more drastic in mind. They were circulating petitions to put an initiative on the November 1994 ballot, the so-called “Save Our State” initiative (which later became Proposition 187). The initiative, launched by groups that peppered their newsletters with racist blather such as “wake up and smell the refried beans,” had two main provisions, both wildly more extreme than anything the Republicans in Sacramento had floated: a flat ban on undocumented immigrants receiving public health care, and kicking undocumented children out of California classrooms.