How Prop. 187 Transformed the Immigration Debate and California Politics

Today’s immigration policies echo an anti-immigration movement from the 1990s in California.

Immigration policy has exposed some of the sharp divisions in the United States, but much of the rhetoric and policies in the news today are eerily similar to an anti-immigration movement that swept the country 20 years ago. And it all started in California, today one of the most liberal and immigrant friendly states in the country.

For teachers
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Sandra McDaniel
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto
  • Update Producer: Sianne Garlick
  • Update Editor: Heru Muharrar

For Educators


This 9-minute video illustrates how demographic trends and a changing California economy in the 1990s created a backlash against immigration, only to be followed by another swing in the ideological pendulum. This lesson examines how economic and demographic forces affect the strategies of the political parties, and demonstrates how policies like Proposition 187 can produce unintended and surprising consequences.

Background reading

In the 1990s the number of illegal immigrants coming into the state of California was a divisive issue. Those who believed immigrants were responsible for the severe job losses in a recession supported Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that would deny undocumented workers and their families healthcare, education and other services. Opponents of the ballot initiative pushed back, saying the recession had been caused by a collapse of manufacturing, and that cutting off social services for those in need would be cruel and unjust.

The heated debate polarized the electorate, and Proposition 187 passed. But the victory was short lived, as the courts ruled 187 was unconstitutional: only the federal government – not the states – can regulate immigration.

But the bitter fight over Proposition 187 did have lasting impact, including sparking Bill Clinton’s national immigration policies. It also had an unintended consequence. Galvanized into action, Latinos registered to vote in massive numbers. And it set the stage for the Latino candidates who have come to hold leadership roles in state government and have helped to convert California into one of the most solidly Democratic, immigrant-friendly states in the nation.

Lesson Plan 1: Immigration in the 1990s – Proposition 187

Students will learn about the anti-immigration movement in California in the 1990s, and why it is relevant today.


Students will:

  • Analyze a specific instance of immigration policy debate and rhetoric.
  • Classify and defend causes and effects related to Proposition 187.
  • Examine U.S. immigration policy at several points in history.
  • Evaluate and make generalizations about U.S. immigration policy.
Essential questions
  • What was Proposition 187? What effect did its supporters intend for it to have?
  • What effects did the attention and debate surrounding Proposition 187 have on immigration policy nationwide?
  • How has U.S. immigration policy and rhetoric related to immigration policy changed over time?
Additional resources
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8:Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9:Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D2.Civ.1.9-12.Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of local, state, tribal, national, and international civic and political institutions.
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.2.9-12.Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.12.9-12.Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.