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Plyler, Proposition 187 and Progress

By November 2, 20103 Comments

By Ju

New Organizing Project blogger


1975 marked a harsh turn in history in Texas; it was the year undocumented students were blocked from access to public education. The measure was significant because it was the first of its kind to eliminate public education for undocumented immigrant students. However, the measure struck down by the federal Supreme Court. In 1982, the Supreme Court stated that the Texas legislation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because discrimination on the basis of immigration status did not further a substantial state interest (see Plyler v. Doe).

In 1994, a similar proposition was introduced in California. Proposition 187 (also known as the “Save Our State” initiative) was designed to prohibit undocumented immigrants from accessing health care, public education and other social services in California. That year, there was also gubernatorial race in California.

Republican candidate Pete Wilson was running to be re-elected governor against Democratic opponent Kathleen Brown, and he was strongly supportive of proposition 187. During his campaign, Pete Wilson spent thousands of dollars on airing negative ads targeting “illegal aliens,” in hopes that this would boost his chance at re-election. Surprisingly, California voters supported Pete Wilson and Proposition 187. As a result, Pete Wilson remained the governor of California and 59% of the public voted for Proposition 187.


UC Berkeley students march down Bancroft Way in a rally against Proposition 187.

This was heartbreaking news for immigrant community at large. However, Proposition 187 was also soon overturned by the Equal Clause Protection under 14thAmendment. Despite this progress, xenophobia towards immigrants remained strong not only in California, but also in many other states.


As an undocumented student, I was shocked when I learned that the proposition was proposed in California and actually passed by 59% of support. It is beyond my imagination, how people could actually perceive immigrants all as one negative group of “criminals,” “aliens,” and “inferior beings.” I can’t believe how people think that undocumented immigrants are taking over jobs and ruining the country. Can’t we look at a bigger perspective of why people migrate?

If Proposition 187 was still law today, I would be a different person. I would have missed out on all the great learning and connections made through higher education.  Thousands of young undocumented students who have potential to be great contributors in this society similarly would have been blocked from access to education, and just because they were denied a chance by the lack of the infamous nine-digit numbers. But thankfully, Proposition 187 is no longer a law; rather, it now rests as a chilling reminder in history books.

Sixteen years has passed since Proposition 187, but we are still facing challenges and difficulties with immigration issues in this country. Remembering our history, we should reopen the history book and thoroughly examine whether Plyer vs. Doe in 1982 was the right decision for American people. I strongly believe so. Denying education means taking away children’s futures and dreams. This is not a reflection of American’s values or beliefs, but rather a manifestation of racism and xenophobia against immigrants. The bottom line is that we should continue to invest in education for everyone regardless of race or immigration status. The fruit of such investment is this: that educators and students will give back to the community and become the ones to improve our society.