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20 Years Later, Can Latinos Repeat Prop 187 Effect?

 / Updated 
File photo of a Los Angeles man signing petitions to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert calling for "realistic and humane" immigration reform, as "No on Proposition 187" organizers launch a voter registration and citizenship drive on May 19, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.
File photo of a Los Angeles man signing petitions to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert calling for "realistic and humane" immigration reform, as "No on Proposition 187" organizers launch a voter registration and citizenship drive on May 19, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.David McNew / Getty Images

This November marks 20 years since Californians approved the Proposition 187 ballot measure, which was aimed at severely curtailing access to state services for immigrants who were not in the country legally. The measure spurred civic engagement and voter participation among Latinos and other groups, which led to political changes in the state and greater participation of Hispanics in state government.

But as Latino advocates commemorated the milestone, they also acknowledged a tough election year in which they shared angst over whether Hispanics will take a break from next month’s elections.

Leaders of several Latino advocacy groups gathered Thursday in Phoenix, where they think Latinos can next make the kind of political and electoral progress made in California after approval of Proposition 187.

Proposition 187 was a measure on the 1994 California ballot. It proposed to prohibit immigrants not in the country legally from several social welfare programs and public schools. It was struck down by a federal court as unconstitutional. California has the largest number of Latinos in the country.

Some suggest that changing demographics rather than the effects of Prop 187 made increased Latino political participation in California inevitable, but “20 years ago that was far from certain,” said Thomas Saenz, president and CEO of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund.

“We’re here today to remember that and to recognize that something similar is happening in Arizona,” Saenz said in the news conference.

The legislature’s passage and Arizona governor Jan Brewer's signing of the immigration enforcement law SB1070 in 2010, which made the state the symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Latino community, has served as a catalyst for organizing, Saenz said.

“These are boomerang laws, they will come back to hurt those who are promoting them … the Latino community will react,” Saenz said. “We as a community will step forward and accelerate our involvement, accelerate our civic participation to change politics not just in California, not just Arizona, but across the country.”

Just like a California law seen as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino spurred political participation 20 years ago, similar measures in states like Arizona can also mobilize the community into political action, said Hispanic leaders.

There has been a steady increase in infrastructure building for getting out the Latino vote in Arizona and it is larger than it was in the 2010 and 2012 elections, said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project and Fund. He also said groups have more people on the ground than in previous years.

“Given the shift in population in the United States, there have been only eight of us (Latinos) who have been elected to statewide office (nationally),” said Henry Muñoz III, co-founder of the Latino Victory Project and a Democratic political fundraiser.

“In Arizona, you have the opportunity to elect No. 9," Muñoz said.

Democrat David Garcia is running for job as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Arizona’s equivalent of education secretary. Muñoz said he would be the first Latino elected in Arizona in four decades.

But the same Latino groups and others are also contending with some disenchantment among Hispanics with both parties and the president. While there has been economic recovery, many families continue to struggle. Latinos were among those hit hardest by the recession that hit during the last administration.

In addition, House Republicans refused to advance immigration reform legislation and passed bills rolling back deportation deferrals for immigrant youth and children. Then President Barack Obama put off using his presidential authority to give some relief to immigrants here illegally until after the midterm elections.

Presente.org, a more liberal online group, released radio ads criticizing Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Several Democratic senators had asked Obama to delay executive action because of its impact on the upcoming elections.

“We urge Latinos to think twice before casting a ballot in her name,” Arturo Carmona, Presente’s executive director said in a statement. The group has also issued Facebook ads against Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu and Jeanne Shaheen.

Some Latino voting advocates have said their job of getting out the Latino vote was made tougher by the president’s delay of executive action, and there has been concern it could suppress turnout. Despite these concerns, national organizations like Voto Latino have harnessed diverse groups, including the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to promote voter registation and participation in the midterms.

Muñoz addressed that concern: “This is a moment not to let anybody, including our own people, to tell us not to vote.”

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