When DiFi Was Anti-Immigrant

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


Elections are supposed to be about the future, not the past. But the U.S. Senate contest between Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon may get most interesting when transported back a quarter century.

Back then, Feinstein was helping develop the communications framework for anti-immigrant politics—a framework subsequently deployed by Gov. Pete Wilson and a generation’s worth of politicians, all the way up to Donald Trump.

After being elected to the Senate in 1992, Feinstein made “illegal immigration,” the term she used, a major issue. She wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that blamed a host of different problems on immigrants.

The column began:

Today, there are 1.3 million Californians out of work. Families throughout our state face overcrowded schools and a scarcity of affordable homes. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 1.3 million undocumented immigrants in California.

Her real focus were the budget costs associated with undocumented immigrants, including the jails. And she didn’t stop with the op-ed. She made the same points on TV and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

And she also called for cracking down via border enforcement. She proposed a $1 fee on anyone entering the country to increase Border Patrol funding. Such fees have been one of Trump’s proposals on immigration. (Hat tip to the scholar Dan HoSang, who has shown Feinstein’s leadership role in the rise of anti-immigrant politics).

Feinstein’s move legitimated a nasty backlash not just against immigrants but against Californians of immigrant heritage. Prop 187 was just part of it.

Notably, De Leon was part of the effort to fight against that backlash. Along with other young friends (among them the future Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez), he was involved in organizing rallies and campaigns against 187.

A quarter century later, De Leon was clearly right on the policy and the politics. Undocumented immigration was not a problem that could be solved with enforcement; It requires legalization and ultimately amnesty. And a majority of the California public knows it. Feinstein has evolved to being a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.

But Feinstein, a law-and-order type, still has a bad habit of playing to nonsense anti-immigrant narratives and supporting greater border enforcement, which is costly not merely in dollars but in fueling ICE and CBP agencies with more than their share of sub-standard officers who violate people’s rights. These are government agencies that are in the business of breaking up California families, after all.

In recent years, she urged a bill that would force local police in California to comply with federal immigration requests. She was responding to the Kate Steinle case in San Francisco, and argued that her bill was a more sensible alternative to a harsh Republican bill.

De León, by contrast, helped lead an effort to separate, as much as possible, federal immigration enforcement from local policing. This policy has now been enacted statewide, and it’s wise; it makes all of us safer when immigrants can contact police without worries about their status.

De León’s campaign has been off to a super-slow start. He has yet to resign his legislative leadership post to pursue the effort. If he ever really gets his campaign going, let’s hope that he reminds Californians of this past — and pushes Feinstein to repudiate her previous stands, and to devote herself to protecting all Californians.

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