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Arizona immigration law has roots in California border turmoil

Turbulent events in California nearly two decades ago have helped create the conditions for the current backlash against illegal immigrants in Arizona.

Senate Bill 1070, the controversial law just approved in Arizona, has its roots in the anti-illegal immigrant movement that swept through California during the recession of the early 1990s and the border controls that were instituted on the California-Mexico border in response to it.

Photo by Omar BárcenaA section of border fence in Mexicali, Mexico.

Those controls dramatically reduced border crossings on the California stretch of the border – and helped transform the Arizona border into the favored crossing point, fueling the backlash against illegal immigrants in that state today. 

What is happening in Arizona underscores the interconnectedness of the border, and how immigration reforms often have unintended -- and long delayed -- consequences.

In the early 1990s, nearly half of all migrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol across the entire 2,200-mile U.S.-Mexico border were being picked up in a 14-mile stretch of the California border near San Diego, running from the Otay Mountains through San Ysidro to Imperial Beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Descriptions of the scene on the California border at that time resemble those on the Arizona border today.

"Illegal border crossers overran the horse ranches of the rustic Tijuana River valley and the residential streets in the city of Imperial Beach," former LA Times reporter Ken Ellingwood wrote in his book "Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border." "Imperial Beach had become the immigration equivalent of Three Mile Island, a disaster of legendary lawlessness, and, as a result, a handy rhetorical backdrop for Republican and Demcorats alike to decry a border out of control."

"Throughout the 1980's and early 90's the 14-mile stretch of border in San Diego was hostile, violent, and out of control," wrote Glynn Custred, an emeritus professor of anthropology at CSU East Bay.  "Crowds would gather on the Tijuana side and pelt border-patrol agents with rocks ...almost daily thousands of Mexicans would gather on the U.S. side, then dash forward en masse in what were known as banzai runs."

At the time, then-Gov. Pete Wilson was facing a tough re-election fight, and the movement to pass Proposition 187, the initiative intended to strip illegal immigrants of a range of public benefits, was gathering strength. Wilson seized on the immigration issue and used it successfully to turn around what was widely viewed as a losing campaign.

He sent an open letter to President Bill Clinton demanding that the federal government reimburse California to cover the costs of services provided to illegal immigrants – and had the state file two lawsuits seeking $2.3 billion in federal funds to cover those costs. He proposed a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

In response, in October 1994, one month before California voters voted on Prop. 187, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector of the border.  The goal, according to then-Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, was “prevention through deterrence” – to make it “so difficult and so costly to enter this country illegally that fewer individuals even try.”

It was based on a successful initiative, Operation Hold the Line, introduced a year earlier on the Rio Grande near El Paso. In a single year – 1992 to 1993 – apprehensions in El Paso had dropped from 285,781 to 79,688 would-be crossers.

On the San Diego sector of the border, the Army Corps of Engineers erected a fence made of steel mats used for landing pads during the Vietnam War, The Border Patrol force quadrupled.  Lights, sensors and other surveillance equipment made the border far more difficult to cross than at any time in its history.

Administration officials reasoned that the new controls would make it far more difficult for migrants to cross into California and instead would push them into more hazardous desert terrain further East, where they would be easier to spot and apprehend.  They also reckoned that fewer migrants would attempt to cross in the more dangerous sections of the border.

They were wrong. The flow did move eastwards – but migrants were not discouraged. In Arizona, isolated towns on the edge of the Sonoran Desert  were transformed into major migration crossing points – crowded with massive reinforcements of Border Patrol agents, outfitted with surveillance and other equipment like those installed on the California border on one side and Texas on the other.

The flows into Arizona were further driven by the pull of the state's expanding economy, and, in particular, its booming housing industry.

"People have continued to migrate, they just have to try harder now," said Joseph Nevins. a professor of geography at Vassar College and author of "Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond."

Within a few years, the situation on the California and Arizona stretches of the border had been completely reversed. 

In 1992, 565,821 migrants were apprehended in the San Diego sector, and a mere 71,036 in the Tucson sector. By 2000, 616,346 migrants were captured crossing in the Tucson sector (which includes Nogales and Douglas), while the numbers being apprehended in the San Diego sector kept dropping, to a low of 100,681 in 2002. 

Despite apprehensions across the entire border, nearly half of all apprehensions are taking place on the Arizona border.  "The border crossers found the next weakness in the dike, and that was essentially Arizona," Demetri Papademtriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. told me this week. "It continues to be ground zero for unauthorized entries." 

Migrants were undeterred, even when hundreds of them died attempting to cross in the parched desert landscape made even more hazardous by abusive smugglers or "polleros," as well as roving bandits.

Just as occurred in California during the recession of the early 1990s, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants crossing the Arizona border have helped drive a crackdown against illegal immigrants in general.

The reaction to the mayhem on the border has been even more extreme than it was in California, in part because Arizona is a far more conservative state, and in part perhaps because the recession is far worse than it was during the Prop. 187 era.

In California, Latinos also occupy powerful positions in state and local government. They also constitute a growing portion of the electorate, makling it highly unlikely the California Legislature would approve anything remotely as tough as the Arizona law.

California has contributed to the anti-illegal immigrant mix in Arizona in other ways. Some of the most visible – and voluble – organizers against illegal immigrants, like Glenn Spencer, founder of the American Border Patrol, and Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which launched vigilante-like patrols on the border, both moved from California to Arizona in the past decade.

In California, according to the Congressional Research Service, Spencer's Voice of Citizens Together, which morphed into the American Patrol in 1992, was a significant force in mobilizing support for Prop. 187 under the "Save Our State" banner and collected 40,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

After moving to Arizona in 2002, Spencer set up a "shadow Border Patrol" whose members roamed the border on all-terrain vehicles, using high-tech sensors and infrared video-cameras on model airplanes to spot migrants, and then posted images on their website to underscore the ineffectiveness of the real Border Patrol.

One of the reasons Spencer left California was because he believed California had been taken over by "reconquistas" from Mexico, and that the state was more or less a lost cause, while Arizona offered more fertile ground for his campaign against "invaders" from across the border.

The passage of Senate Bill 1070 may have proven him right.


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Pancho's picture
The mexican mantra

All of the laws should be enforced equally, regardless of race, religion, and/or national origin. That is with the exception of mexicans, and they should be above the law and exempt from the law. And the only purpose that a tonto gringo serves is to pay taxes to support the superior and noble mexican.

Anyone who disagrees with this philosophy is Xenophobic and a Racist.


All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
George Orwell, Animal Farm, ch.10, 1945
Pancho's picture

The Big 187 Spin

A Brief History of California’s Proposition 187

Glenn Spencer – The American Patrol Report – April 27, 2010

 In 1994 the long-suffering people of California passed Proposition 187. Much like SB 1070 in Arizona, 187 was designed fight against illegal immigration.  In the case of 187 the approach was to cut off funding, including free schooling.  Alan C. Nelson, one of the principal authors of 187, fully expected it to be tested in the courts.  In fact, it was specifically designed to test the Plyler vs. Doe Supreme Court decision that held that all U.S. public schools had to accept anyone who showed up at their doorstep, regardless of immigration status.

 As expected, 187 was challenged in the courts, and, after four years of deliberate delay, Judge Marianna Pfaelzer ruled some of it unconstitutional.  Instead of defending the decision of the people of his state in the courts, as was his duty, California Gov. Gray Davis put 187 into mediation.

There were many problems with mediating a constitutional issue in and of itself.  To make matters worse, Gov. Davis only invited opponents of 187 to determine its future.  This was a sham.  The result was that 187 was not tested at the appellate level and Alan Nelson’s hope of testing Plyer vs. Doe was dashed.

Before he decided to “mediate” 187, Davis met with Mexican President Zedillo and struck a deal to kill it. On Aug. 4, 1999, the Los Angeles Times carried a front-page photo of the President of Mexico along side Antonio Villaraigosa, then Speaker of the California Assembly, and now Mayor of Los Angeles, applauding Gov. Davis’ decision to kill 187. 

“As leader of the state Assembly, I say President Zedillo had great impact in defeating 187,” Villaraigosa told a news conference after he and a state delegation met with the Mexican chief executive. (L.A. Times, Aug. 4, 1999).

 It gets worse.  One of the mediators even admitted that 187 was killed because they feared it would be found constitutional. “Carlos Holguin, the Human Rights and Constitutional Law Center's Attorney, said that the process of negotiating that the litigating parties followed to reach this conclusion avoided a greater risk that the case would go to the Supreme Court and the right to education of the undocumented would be lost. " (La Opinion, Aug. 1, 1999)

And who runs the Human Rights and Constitutional Law Center?  Peter Schey – the man who argued the Plyer vs. Doe case before the Supreme Court that forced all U.S. schools to educate anyone who showed up on their doorstep.

So the man who was largely responsible for the need for Prop. 187 was instrumental in killing it.
All of these things are well documented. Despite this, most of the mainstream media continue to insist that Proposition 187 was killed by the courts. It was not – California Gov. Gray Davis and Ernesto Zedillo, the President of Mexico killed it.

Today’s New York Times includes a feature by the editors entitled “Will Arizona’s Immigration Law Survive?”
It opens up with this paragraph.

Arizona’s tough new immigration enforcement law, which was signed on Friday, will face many legal challenges before it goes into effect this summer. Some opponents of the law, the toughest in the nation, predict that it will suffer the same fate as California’s Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 but never carried out because of legal setbacks and political opposition.

That’s right.  Proposition 187, a law passed by the people of the State of California, was never implemented because of “political opposition.” At least the NY Times is struggling to maintain some semblance of journalistic integrity.

levotb's picture
This guy Freedberg was doing great, explaining how California's Invasion by Mexico became Arizona's due to the 14-mile double-layer fence (he doesn't mention the double-layered fence, only lights, etc.) when all of a sudden...boom! P.C. verbiage, giving away his position on the issue. Freedberg is clearly an Open Borders liberal. He calls illegal aliens "undocumented migrants". They are mostly poor Mexican nationals, illegal aliens. And many are carrying stolen U.S. IDs or fraudulent U.S. IDs to be used to settle, illegally in the U.S. (a felony). Being the good liberal that he is and very likely a Bill Clinton supporter, he fails to mention the effect that NAFTA had on the flow of illegal entries from 1995 on. Many experts blame NAFTA for the tsunami of illegals after 1995 as Mexican ranchers and their employees lost their farms and jobs to AgraBiz in Mexico due to NAFTA. Freedberg also fails to mention the reason for the increase in break-ins from as far back as 1986--Reagan's signing of Simple-minded Alan Simpson-Mazolli, the Amnesty that brought in more than double those who were already here and began "the wave" in the 1990s. He also fails to mention the effect that Bush's push for Amnesty throughout his first 6 years in office had, increasing break-ins even more.
allen whitman's picture
here join this facebook group to reinstate prop 187 http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=113173282053014#!/group.php?gid=113173282053014
ink109's picture
He fails to mention the effect that NAFTA had on the flow of illegal entries from 1995 on. stock market today stock market today

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