Revisiting Feinstein and Formerly Anti-Immigrant Pols

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)


I recently wrote in this space about Dianne Feinstein’s development – 25 years ago – of an approach to “illegal” immigration that became a template for more virulent anti-immigrant attacks from politicians from Pete Wilson to Donald Trump.

I heard from many people in response. Feinstein’s partisans said it was unfair. More than a year after her 1993 campaign that blamed undocumented immigrants for budget and other challenges (in my view, incorrectly and in an appeal to bigotry), she came out against Prop 187. And she did this, said more than one caller, against quite a bit of political advice that she should have endorsed the anti-immigrant measure.

More recently, Feinstein, her supporters note, has backed comprehensive reform and is in the middle of talks to protect those with DACA status, the “Dreamers.”

That’s all to the good, and I should have mentioned her No on 187 stance, though that doesn’t change her history of playing to fears of immigration. And on that point, I got even more feedback.

The gist of that feedback is this; Feinstein was far from alone among liberally minded politicians in taking anti-immigrant stances at various points and/or pursuing policies hostile to immigrants. The obvious examples are the last two Democratic presidents. Obama deported millions, literally breaking up families and taking away the parents of many American citizens. President Clinton signed an immigration bill that took away crucial protections for immigrants, and he made statements that were almost Trumpian in their skepticism about undocumented immigrants.

Even President Reagan, who bravely and wisely pursued amnesty and larger reform, could play to anti-immigrant politics.

Going back further, many of those who reached out – most of whom are quite a bit older than me – made the point that organized labor and the Democrats they backed were – in earlier generations – often very hostile to immigration, undocumented and the legal variety.

One correspondent referred back to statements by Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration attacking Vietnamese refugees to California in 1975. And then there’s the sainted Earl Warren, who was a leader in the incarceration of people of Japanese heritage, some of them immigrants.

My take: the fact that anti-immigrant politics has been practiced by so many California leaders doesn’t make such practices any more valid. It’s time for this state to embrace a fervently pro-immigrant politics, and for politicians to own up their histories, instead of explaining it away by the context of the times.

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