The Ideological Alchemy of Contemporary Nativism: Revisiting the Origins of California’s Proposition 187


  • Daniel Martinez HoSang



This article traces the origins and evolution of the ideological alchemy of contemporary nativisim. It finds that anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics today rest on complex affective appeals that wed putatively liberal discourses about fairness, equality, and sustainability to claims about fiscal austerity, criminality, and racial degeneracy. The passage of California’s notorious anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 in 1994 initiated an upsurge in anti-immigrant legislation and state regulation that is now extending into its third decade. These policies may seem like mere modern-day manifestations of longstanding nativism and xenophobia in the national political culture, but they also draw on putatively liberal ideas about equality, citizenship, national identity, and environmental sustainability. To paint all restrictionist efforts with an identical brush is to misapprehend the historically specific grounds on which restrictionists have come to set the terms of the current political debate. Understanding how anti-immigrant activists and organizations have used seemingly liberal ideals to legitimate their ideas and arguments enables us to understand more clearly how to frame counter-arguments capable of capturing popular allegiance and transforming the terms of argument about this important issue. Elements of the debate over Proposition 187 that continue to influence current contestation about immigration policies are the struggle to define immigration as a particular kind of “problem,” to construct particular groups of immigrants as threatening and menacing, and to naturalize repressive laws and policies as the “solution” to this problem. This has been a far more contingent and contested process than the prevailing consensus suggests. Specific political actors and institutions, armed with evolving and often contradictory ideas and political objectives, labored for many years to make immigration restriction the subject of popular debate, and understanding these efforts is an essential part of crafting popular mobilizations capable of.