Proposition 187 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first legislation to focus on the public costs of illegal immigration, California’s Proposition 187 was written to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving benefits or public services from the state. It arose because of the belief that illegal immigrants caused hardships to California citizens. Critics charged that measure arose out of racism.

The movement to place Proposition 187 on California’s ballot began in November, 1993, as the “Save Our State” initiative. Promoted by former agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as well as several politicians, the measure proposed stricter penalties for false residency documents. It also reversed existing laws by mandating cooperation between the police and the INS. The sections of the law that triggered a bitter public debate denied social services, including nonemergency health care and public education, to illegal immigrants. Officials who delivered public services were also required to report any suspected undocumented person to the INS. The initiative appeared on the November, 1994, ballot as Proposition 187. Proponents had gathered more than 385,000 signatures to place the measure on the ballot.[a]Proposition 187Illegal immigration;and Proposition 187[Proposition 187]California;Proposition 187[a]Proposition 187Illegal immigration;and Proposition 187[Proposition 187]California;Proposition187[cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Proposition 187[04290][cat]LAWS;Proposition 187[04290][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Proposition 187[04290]

Anti-Proposition 187 demonstrators outside a building in which California governor Pete Wilson was speaking in January, 1996.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

After the introduction of Proposition 187, much political debate in California focused on the measure. According to the opposition, the measure was the result of white racism and specifically targeted Latinos. Its supporters insisted that they were concerned only with immigration status, a race-neutral phenomenon, and that their opponents were racist in their narrow assessment of the measure. These mutual accusations of racism led to an extremely polarizing debate.

At the time of Proposition 187’s introduction, California faced a huge budget deficit. Governor Wilson, PetePete Wilson had requested a $2.3 billion reimbursement from the federal government to cover the state’s expenses related to illegal immigration. Wilson also filed lawsuits against the federal government to retrieve money spent for incarcerating, educating, and providing emergency medical care for illegal immigrants. Wilson’s requests served to highlight the costs associated with illegal immigrants.

California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, with many people stating that they had gone to the polls expressly to vote on the measure. In the immediate wake of passage, opponents filed lawsuits and U.S. district court judge Mariana Pfaelzer placed an injunction on enforcement of the measure, ruling Proposition 187 to be unconstitutional on the grounds that the state attempted to regulate immigration, a federal responsibility. The state did not appeal. Undocumented immigrants were never denied public services in the state of California.

Nevertheless, other states tried to copy Proposition 187. The legislation is credited with triggering conservative changes in the Republican Party platform on immigration as well as sparking provisions in federal welfare reform that denied services to legal immigrants. It may have also prompted increases in rates of naturalization and contributed to the politicization of Latinos.[a]Proposition 187Illegal immigration;and Proposition 187[Proposition 187]California;Proposition 187

Further Reading
  • Jacobson, Robin Dale. The New Nativism: Proposition 187 and the Debate Over Immigration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Ono, Kent A., and John M. Sloop. Shifting Borders: Rhetoric, Immigration, and California’s Proposition 187. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
  • Wroe, Andrew. The Republican Party and Immigration Politics: From Proposition 187 to George W. Bush. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.



Economic consequences of immigration


Farm and migrant workers

Illegal immigration

Latinos and immigrants

Los Angeles

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Plyler v. Doe


Welfare and social services

Categories: History