Shades of 1994 and the “Pete Wilson effect” that very quickly turned California from a swing state that could go either way in any particular election to a solidly Democratic one where only a mega-movie star like Arnold Schwarzenegger could break through for Republicans.
It appears Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump might be on his way to doing the same thing to his party on a national basis.
The GOP’s Wilson did it by heartily backing the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in his reelection drive for governor that year, airing a steady stream of TV ads that showed migrants running across the border at San Ysidro while an announcer intoned, “They keep coming.”
Within less than three years, about 2.5 million legal Hispanic immigrants living in California became naturalized citizens and virtually all registered Democratic, turning California into one of the country’s most dependable Democratic bastions. A sudden infusion of more than 2 million voters into one party’s base in a single state can do that.
It was fear that drove many immigrants who previously were more interested in events in their Latin American hometowns suddenly to take an interest in California politics. Fear that if Proposition 187, with its restrictions on public schooling and hospital care for the undocumented, could pass by a 2-1 margin, legal immigrants might be the next target. Real security against deportation, many believed, could come only via citizenship.
As the campaign over 187 played out, thousands of legal immigrants reported racist conduct against them of sorts they had never before experienced. At self-serve gasoline stations, it became common to hear cries of “out of the way, wetback,” when lines formed. Schoolchildren reported previously friendly classmates hurling similar insults. There were also outright violent acts, all of which created a climate of fear that spurred the citizenship flood.
Now it’s happening again. Los Angeles freelance writer Tina Vasquez titled a recent column on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian “I’ve experienced a new level of racism since Donald Trump went after Latinos.”
Of course, it’s not only Trump. As he’s led the Republican polls during the first few months of the primary election season, the large troupe of trailing GOP candidates has aped almost all his stances, no matter how unreasonable (imagine the expense and legal problems in rounding up and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants).
For Vasquez and many fellow Latinos, this has translated into individual insults and innuendos of the same sort Hispanics experienced during and after 1994.
“A couple of weeks ago, while I was running errands in my neighborhood, a stranger asked me if I was ‘illegal,’” she reported. “Around 10 minutes earlier, another stranger asked me if I spoke English. Both were white and one even called me ‘senorita.’”
These questions were being asked of a native U.S. citizen who reports she’s lived in Los Angeles 29 of her 30 years.
Now extrapolate this nationally, just as the many individual racist episodes of 1994 occurred in almost all parts of California.
In Texas, fully 3 million legal Hispanic immigrants have never applied for citizenship. In Georgia, it’s more than 500,000. In South Carolina, it’s about 300,000. And on and on.
In each of those states, the number of Latinos eligible to apply for citizenship is more than sufficient to spur the same kind of transformation that occurred here 20 years ago. All that’s needed is for fear to reach the same level it did here.
Of course, no one can be sure that will happen, or that Latinos in other states might not be more passive than they were here. But the potential for political change is enormous and only one of the current GOP candidate crop (South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham) has had the courage to stand up and say so.
Meanwhile, Trump and the rest are banking on winning angry Anglo voters, just as Wilson did in 1994. Like him, they might win this year, if only because it takes quite some time to complete the naturalization process. But if they continue their current path, they risk the same sort of second-class status for their national party that Republicans now suffer with here in California.