A Popular Anti-Illegal Immigration Measure Didn’t Turn California Blue

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Scott Greer Contributor
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Republicans received another sign earlier this month they’re going extinct in California.

During the same week, California Reps. Ed Royce — chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — and Darrell Issa — a conservative favorite — both announced they would not be running for re-election in 2018. (RELATED: Darrell Issa Retiring — GOP Mass Exodus Continues)

It’s not a huge mystery why Royce and Issa are choosing to bow out.

Both men represent districts that went for Hillary Clinton by strong margins in the 2016 election, and there is little indication that either Republican was going to flip their district back to red in 2018.

So they’re gone — and now California will have two fewer Republicans representing it in Congress. There are presently only 14 Republicans in the Golden State’s 53 member congressional delegation and, unless a miracle happens, that number is going to fall even further in the upcoming election.

The departure of two prominent California Republicans from Congress is another sign the Grand Old Party is facing virtual extinction in the most populous state in the Union. Democrats control the state assembly by an overwhelming majority, and Republicans haven’t seriously competed for a state-wide office in years.

The home state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is now a one party regime. How did the state that Reagan won four times — twice for governor, twice for president — become hostile territory for Republicans?

The “respectable conservative” crowd and a number of liberals answer that question by blaming a tough anti-illegal immigration law that passed with support from nearly 60 percent of California voters.

In 1994, then-Governor Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican, tied his re-election campaign to a ballot initiative called California Proposition 187 — nicknamed the Save Our State initiative. Prop 187 would have instituted citizenship screening for any person suspected of being in the country illegally by police and barred state services, such as non-emergency health care and public education, to illegal immigrants.

The proposal was criticized fiercely as xenophobic and racist, but those critiques didn’t sway the millions of Californians who voted in favor of it. More Californians voted for Prop 187 than they did for Pete Wilson (who won re-election) and a surprisingly diverse coalition of voters supported it. In addition to the 64 percent of white Californians who favored it, so did 57 percent of Asian-Americans and 56 percent of African-Americans.

While only 31 percent of Hispanic Californians voted for it, polling at the time found a strong majority of Latinos backed immigration restriction. One poll in the early 1990s found that 75 percent of Mexican-Americans, 66 percent of Cuban-Americans and 80 percent of Puerto Ricans said there were too many immigrants in the country, a good indication that a large number of Hispanics would have supported immigration reduction.

A more important thing to remember is that the 31 percent of Hispanics who voted for Prop 187 is basically equivalent to the percentage of Hispanics in California who vote for the GOP. In 1990, Wilson won 33 percent of the Hispanic vote in his successful first bid for governor. Additionally, during the presidential elections of the 1980s, Republican candidates never performed particularly well among Hispanics in the state, with George H.W. Bush only earning 25 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1992. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.

But the GOP wasn’t entirely doomed following Prop 187’s death shortly after it was approved in the courts.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to win the governor’s seat as a Republican 9 years after Prop 187 while touting his vote for it and promising to crack down on illegal immigrants. Schwarzenegger softened his tone on the issue when he won re-election in 2006, but his electoral success belies the argument Republicans were doomed by the ’94 ballot measure.

The underlying assumption behind the arguments of folks such as the Cato Institute and The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley is that the GOP alienated California’s changing demographics with Prop 187. Essentially, the blame goes on the popular measure rather than the changing demographics itself.

This idea appears more preposterous when considering Republicans’ current standing among Hispanics in the Golden State.

As the polling from the early 1990s and now show, Hispanics appear open to reducing immigration to the U.S. The same can’t be said of other Republican priorities like limited government and fervent support for gun rights.

According to a 2012 Pew Research poll, Hispanics favor big government over small government 75 percent to 19 percent. For the rest of the population, it was 48 percent to 41 percent in favor of limited government.

Additionally, Hispanics strongly favor stricter gun control over protecting the rights of gun owners by 62 percent to 36 percent, according to a 2014 Pew study. Among the general population, more Americans favor protecting the rights of firearm owners over gun control 53 percent to 45 percent.

Republicans place those issues much higher in their agenda than immigration, so perhaps the reason why Hispanics don’t vote GOP is because it’s the party of cutting government benefits rather than its reputation for strongly enforcing immigration law.

A better reason California turned blue is the liberal immigration policies pushed by Republicans in the era of Reagan and Bush. Measures such as the 1986 amnesty and the Immigration Act of 1990 both had a tremendous impact on California and significantly altered its demographics.

In 1980, Hispanics made up 19 percent of the state. Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the state and make up around 40 percent of its population.

Californians can thank immigration — both legal and illegal — for this dramatic change.

California was the leading destination for illegal immigrants in the 1980s, with an estimated yearly inflow of over 200,000 aliens into the state, around the time Reagan’s amnesty was passed, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. That amnesty legalized nearly three million illegal aliens and offered them a path to citizenship.

For years, California has been the leading state for the highest number of immigrants per capita. In 1990, 21.7 percent of the state was foreign-born. In 2012, that number had increased to 27 percent. The majority of immigrants living in California hail from Latin America.

A better idea for winning over Hispanic voters would be for Republicans to win them over with a pro-worker economic message that includes immigration reduction. It is a hell of lot better than thinking amnesty will convince Latinos to sign on for privatized social security.

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