Ariz. Immigration Law Brings Calif. Flashbacks

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Arizona's tough new immigration law rekindles memories of an equally tough measure California voters adopted back in 1994. Proposition 187 was never enacted because of multiple legal challenges, but the measure still had a lasting impact. It may have even influenced the flow of illegal immigrants into Arizona.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Thousands of pro-immigrant May Day marchers are taking to the streets in cities across the country today. They are outraged about Arizona's new law targeting illegal immigrants. Biggest demonstrations are expected in the state of California, with a huge Hispanic population and its own history of trying to crack down on illegal immigrants.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Organizers of May Day rallies have had a hard time getting crowds out lately, but this year anger over the Arizona law is galvanizing protestors. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says the law unfairly targets Latinos, and he's urging protestors to hit the streets.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): I ask that you demonstrate to our city, our state, the nation and the world that the people who come here in their vast majority come here to work. They come here to contribute. They come here to participate in this great American dream.

KAHN: Villaraigosa is also backing a proposal by L.A.'s city council to boycott Arizona. Los Angeles does at least $7 million worth of business with the state and Councilman Ed Reyes wants those contracts severed.

Mr. ED REYES (Democratic City Councilman, Los Angeles): Why should we be giving our own tax dollars, our hard money, to a state that chooses to penalize a community that essentially is a contributing element to our economy? If we let this happen in Arizona, other states can continue on that path. That would be very destructive for this country.

KAHN: Not long ago, that same kind of anger was directed at California. In 1994, Governor Pete Wilson backed Proposition 187, a measure that would cut services to illegal immigrants, and he made it the center point of his reelection campaign.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: They keep coming: two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us...

KAHN: Who can forget the grainy TV ads of Mexican citizens dashing across the border into California?

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: But that's not all...

Governor PETE WILSON (Former Republican Governor, California): For Californians who work hard, pay taxes and obey the laws, I'm suing to force the federal government to control the border.

KAHN: Dan Schnur was Wilson's communications director.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Director, Unruh Institute of Politics, University of Southern California): History doesn't necessarily repeat itself; it just moves east. Because the rallies, the protests, the boycott threats - this is exactly the same thing the state of California went through 16 years ago after the passage of Proposition 187.

KAHN: The measure never went into effect; it was overturned in the courts. Schnur is now the director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Mr. SCHNUR: The great irony here is that the one tangible policy outcome of Proposition 187 was then-President Clinton took several steps to shore up security. And what that did, among other things, is it forced the flow of illegal immigrants eastward.

KAHN: Meaning the majority of all illegal immigrants coming into the U.S. now enter through Arizona. Schnur says today's solutions are much more complicated than adding Border Patrol agents like Clinton did in the 1990s. Members of Congress and President Obama have signaled they don't plan to deal with immigration reform this election year, so many are bracing for more marches and more boycotts.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez has started his own boycott. He cancelled a sold-out show tonight in Chandler, Arizona.

Mr. PAUL RODRIGUEZ (Comedian): If I could just get every Rodriguez listening to me to tell another Rodriguez, boycott Arizona, if we could leave Arizona Rodriguez-less, that would be such an economic impact. I'm thinking about tens of dollars that would be just siphoned out of that economy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: Rodriguez says he can't help making jokes, but adds he hopes hitting Arizonans in their pocketbooks will get them to repeal the new law.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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