"Today's action signals that the era of hate politics is truly over." So said Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante of California in 1999 when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis dropped the state's appeal of the federal court decision that had overturned Proposition 187.
Bustamante's provocative rhetoric raised an obvious question the liberal media was never inclined to probe: What did Prop 187 have to do with hate?
Enacted in 1994, the proposition was completely colorblind. Foreign nationals residing illegally in California, it said, would not be entitled to attend public schools or receive state-funded social services or non-emergency health care. It did not target taxpayers of any particular ethnicity for relief from this burden, nor did it target illegal aliens of any particular ethnicity for denial of state funding. All taxpayers were relieved; all illegal aliens were denied state funding.
California voters were never confused about this. In 1994, 59 percent voted for Prop 187. In June 1999, one month before Davis suspended the state's legal defense of the law, a Los Angeles Times poll indicated that 60 percent of registered voters still approved of Prop 187 and only 35 percent opposed it.
Bustamante's "era of hate" never happened except in a mythical world tailored to the needs of a miserable political strategy. The Bustamante Democrats framed Prop 187 as an issue pitting Latino Americans against white Republicans and then falsely imputed an ethnic bias to Republicans who supported the proposition. Many Republicans, who cowed at the prospect of being falsely (but perhaps irreparably) tarred as biased, backed away from Prop 187.
But things have changed since 1999. The heyday of Democratic demagoguery on illegal immigration is over.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, awoke Americans to the national security risks of unsecured borders. A growing number of Republicans are taking up the cause of securing them. In California, the budget crisis that inspired the recall election for Gov. Davis has drawn attention again to the impact illegal immigration has on that state's fiscal affairs.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger voted for Prop 187, and has named former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the proposition's most prominent supporter, as co-chairman of his campaign.
Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock, also running for governor, is making illegal immigration and Prop 187 top issues.
"I intend to enforce all provisions of Proposition 187," McClintock said in an Aug. 25 interview with the editors of Human Events.
"When it was challenged it was the governor's responsibility to defend it," he said. "(Gray Davis) refused to discharge that responsibility. I intend to see that Proposition 187 does have its full, fair hearing in court, and the best way to do that is to begin to enforce it.
"I will use every power available to the governor to see that our immigration laws are enforced," he added.
That includes pressuring the federal government to secure the borders, vetoing legislation (supported by Davis) that would allow illegal aliens to get California driver's licenses, and seeking to reverse a law that allows illegal aliens to pay highly subsidized in-state tuition rates at California state colleges.
A thoughtful man of measured words, McClintock is well suited to confront the implication that opposition to illegal immigration is anti-Latino. "(T)he most damaging thing about illegal immigration," he says, "is that it undermines the process of legal immigration accompanied by assimilation that is a strength of our nation, and in fact its foundation."
"There are millions of Latino families who have obeyed our immigration laws and come to our nation legally with the express purpose of becoming Americans and seeing their children succeed and prosper as Americans," he said. ". . . It is unfair to all of those from around the world who have stood in line to obey our laws to grant preference to those who have cut in line in front of them."
As a nation of immigrants, Americans are brought together by shared values that transcend ethnicity. The strategy of the Bustamante Democrats of imputing "hate" to those who supported Prop 187 was aimed at winning the power to govern a state by dividing it. The approach now being reclaimed by Tom McClintock and other California Republicans is aimed at uniting the state again. Given the overwhelming popularity of Prop 187, it's not a bad place to start.