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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1994: California's Proposition 187

Caravan of emigrants for California (Crossing the great American desert in Nebraska). [between 1850 and 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

On November 9, 1994, California’s voters passed Proposition 187 (also known as the Save Our State referendum), a ballot initiative proposed by anti-immigrant organizations, which restricted undocumented immigrants from the state’s public services, including access to public education and healthcare. In addition, the proposition directed teachers and healthcare professionals to report any individuals suspected of being undocumented to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) or the California Attorney General. Lack of guidelines on how to suspect if someone was undocumented led many to argue that Proposition 187 would target and profile individuals who possessed certain physical attributes categorized as foreign.

Proposition 187 was approved during a turbulent period of economic recession in California, urging many citizens to view undocumented immigrants as scapegoats. Upon the proposition’s passage, Governor Pete Wilson advocated for the referendum’s immediate implementation, ordering healthcare facilities and school districts to deny services to undocumented individuals. Several organizations promptly challenged the proposition, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), who argued that the proposition violated Plyler v. Doe (1982) and that immigration is a federal rather than a state issue.

A few weeks from the referendum’s passage, a federal judge ruled an injunction against Proposition 187 until a legal review could be executed, leading to disputes between each side and demonstrations in California’s colleges and universities. Ultimately, the state could not enact Proposition 187 after courts found it unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment, which protects any individual regardless of citizenship status. The proposition lost influence after California’s economic boom during the late 1990s but other states, including Arizona have introduced similar proposals.


1982 In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court rules that the Constitution entitles all children—regardless of their citizenship— to free public education under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
November 9, 1994 California voters pass Proposition 187 by a vote of 59% to 41%.
October 15, 1995 Between 70,000 to 250,000 protesters march against the proposition in Los Angeles.
1998 Judge Mariana Pfaelzer rules Proposition 187 unconstitutional in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
2004 A similar Proposition 187 referendum is proposed but does not gain support.
2010 Arizona voters pass immigration bill S.B. 1070.


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