Immigrants versus Taxpayers
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigrant Responsibility Act
At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8, voting booths across California shut down, but the 1994 general election would resonate long afterwards. Even after its passage, Proposition 187 would linger in the headlines as both supporters and opponents awaited a final decision from ensuing court challenges to the law1 Pete Wilson hung onto the governorship by talking tough about illegal immigrants and hitching his ailing re-election campaign to the popular measure. The California election, while significant, did not occur in a vacuum. California's initiative process provided evidence that illegal immigrants remained an unpopular group of people, and that immigration could serve as a rallying point for voters across party and even class lines. The passage of Proposition 187 would matter nationally not only because California was an electoral-vote-rich state, but also because national opinion polls showed that Americans were concerned about the effects that immigration—all immigration—was having on the country.
In June of 1993, the New York Times ran a front-page story that declared that “public reaction against immigration” was “growing … at a time when many Americans are out of work.”2 The article quoted a concerned postal worker from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, who felt that “our economy is in a bad state and we should take care of our own.” Contrasting a June 1993 survey with one taken in 1986 that asked the same questions, the article argued that anti-immigrant sentiment was growing in response to poor economic conditions and “a perception” held by 68 percent of respondents that recent immigrants were primarily illegal. At the same time, this poll reflects the mixed sentiment with which the American public tends to view immigrants themselves: 36 percent of respondents sensed that immigrants “take jobs away from American citizens,” while 55 percent viewed immigrants as people who “take jobs Americans