The iconic image from the Prop. 187 -- a sign that dotted freeways near the California-Mexico border. (Photo by Louis Freedberg/EdSource)

Exactly a quarter of a century ago, on Nov. 8, 1994, Californians went to the polls to vote on Proposition 187, an initiative to expel undocumented students from its public schools and universities.

That was despite a Supreme Court ruling a dozen years earlier that schools were required to educate all students regardless of their immigration status.

Among its many provisions was that schools officials would have had to identify all undocumented students in their schools. Parents would have 45 days to prove that they weren’t undocumented, and if they couldn’t, students would be expelled within 90 days.

That appeared to be a blatant, even cynical, attempt to mobilize support for the initiative. That’s because the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Texas case had ruled that states could not deny a free public education to undocumented children unless it “furthers some substantial state interest.”

Prop. 187 went even further than the Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down, in that it would have prevented schools from enrolling undocumented children under any circumstances, even if they paid tuition.

Recently, Barbara Kiley, one of the authors of Prop. 187, told the podcast “This is California: The Battle of  187″ that one reason the anti-schooling provision was included was to help the initiative to “gather media attention, so it would send up a red flag so that everyone would have an opinion and everyone would want to talk about it … and that is when it took off.”

Gustavo Arellano, the Los Angeles Times reporter who hosted the podcast and was a student at Anaheim High School in 1994, said initiative backers also somehow hoped that if challenges to Prop. 187 ever made it to the Supreme Court, that Plyler v. Doe would be overturned there.

If the nation were not in the middle of a major push by the federal government today to track down and expel undocumented residents of the state, Prop. 187 would be a distant memory.

But it is not. Current federal immigration enforcement policies are stirring up memories of that tumultuous time in California’s history, as undocumented students face some of the same threats they did a quarter century ago. Except this time the threat comes not from the state, but from the federal government.

Today, it is impossible to imagine Prop. 187 even being on a ballot in California, let alone being approved by voters here.

Because of court challenges, Prop. 187 never went into effect. Los Angeles District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer ruled that the Plyler decision rendered the educational provisions of the initiative unconstitutional.

Eventually, Gov. Gray Davis chose not to appeal Pfaelzer’s ruling, and Prop.187  died. The California Education Code was amended to affirm the Plyler ruling by declaring that “nothing in this chapter may be construed as addressing alien eligibility for a basic public education as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States under Plyler v. Doe.”

Rather than trying to force undocumented immigrants out of the state, California is now a “sanctuary state,” attempting to protect them from being summarily deported.

Yet, undocumented students have to contend with the real possibility of deportation. Even if they are U.S. citizens, many of them have parents, family members and friends who are undocumented who could be picked up at any time by federal immigration authorities and deported. Many already have been.

Students who have temporary relief from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program still face the possibility that the Supreme Court will side with the Trump  administration’s efforts to abolish it.

This week, the court was expected to hear oral arguments on whether to back the Trump administration’s efforts to abolish the DACA program. This time California, rather than arguing that students should be expelled from its campuses, has taken the lead in trying to ensure that they remain there.

The reality is that California’s schools are now for the most part welcoming places for undocumented students.

As a result of the Local Control Funding Formula championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, the state now gives extra funds to K-12 schools for every “English learner” student. Most English learners are U.S. citizens or are in the U.S. legally. But among them are undocumented students who are benefiting from California’s focus on ensuring that students from immigrant families succeed.

At its universities and colleges, undocumented students are eligible to pay lower tuition enjoyed by California residents, and to receive state financial aid.

It is tempting to romanticize where California is today as a welcoming place for immigrant students. But hostility to undocumented immigrants swirls just below the surface. Just last year, Travis Allen, then a GOP assemblyman in the state Legislature, was running for governor. He made removing undocumented students from California schools a notable pledge of his campaign.

“California taxpayer dollars should only be used for the benefit of California citizens,” Allen told EdSource at the time. “When our schools are ranked among the lowest in the nation, it makes absolutely no sense to provide taxpayer dollars for people who are not even in our state legally.”

His campaign slogan was “It’s time to take our state back again,” echoing the now infamous “Save Our State” tagline of the Prop. 187 campaign.

But as Arellano points out, Allen “didn’t even make it out of the Republican primary … that type of rhetoric doesn’t work on the state level anymore.”

Where will California and the nation be two and a half decades from now? Arellano says despite today’s tumult, the direction is clear. “California is the future, and get ready, America, the future is coming to you.”

Whether or how fast that will happen will be shaped by the outcome of Supreme Court rulings like the one the court will consider this week, and on what happens in elections — at both a state and national level.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Louis Freedberg