Direct Democracy Rules: The Effect of Propositions, Initiatives, and Referendums on State Immigration Legislation in the 21st Century (under contract at NYU Press)

In 1994, a group of citizens known as the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR) wrote the “Save Our State” Initiative. Proposition 187 instructed public services to exclude benefits to California residents who could not prove their legal presence in the United States. Twenty-five years later, not much has changed. California passed other immigration-related legislation like Proposition 227 (1998) which mandated an English-only education in all California schools. Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Oregon also proposed similar English only education initiatives between 2000 and 2008 (Arnold 2011). In Colorado, Referendum K (2006) directed the state attorney general to initiate a lawsuit against the federal government demanding they enforce existing federal immigration laws. Arizona passed Proposition 200 in 2004 which prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing state social services. In 2018, an initiative appeared on Oregon’s state ballot to repeal a Sanctuary State Law passed the previous year.

Even if these initiatives are not enacted, they have serious and lasting social, cultural, political, and economic effects on the lives of Latinx and/or Asian undocumented immigrants. These laws also affect people of color at large because immigration policy discussion have been imbued with racial stereotypes and connotations (racialized) in the United States (Carter et al 1996; Sáenz and Manges Douglas 2015; Asad and Clair 2018). Immigration laws have been used to racially profile citizens and are used by people of color as indicators of the current state and national political feeling about people of color (Sanchez and Masuoka 2010; Selden et al 2011; Nier et al 2012). Practically, state laws about driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants can fundamentally undermine the financial stability and future of immigrant families, some with citizen children.

On a national scale, these propositions inform federal conversations and policy on immigration, just as elements of Proposition 187 were include in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRAIRA) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Acts of 1996. In the era of Trump and the federal executive pushing restrictive immigration policies, these national decisions can be informed or justified by state immigration policies. Since 2010, state legislatures have enacted 1,644 statutes and resolutions regarding immigration, averaging about 329 laws each year. Nevertheless, the most controversial bills, the ones we remember and talk about, usually have some involvement with the direct democracy process: initiatives, propositions, and referendums. With the federal government unable to pass comprehensive immigration legislation since the last century, state interest groups working within or around state legislative institutions have come to define the modern battle ground for immigration policy in the 21st century.

State interest groups are advocating for immigration policy, playing a complicated game that requires resources, skills, and knowledge of state-specific direct democracy mechanism. In states with direct democracy mechanisms, citizens can bypass their legislators and introduce immigration policy with minimal negotiation. We know surprisingly little about what interest groups do to change policy given the power they can wield in direct democracy states and what we do know does not inspire confidence. In the early 1990’s[i], a bankrupt accountant,[ii] a city councilperson with two years of experience at the time, a political consultant, and a forcibly retired crime analyst with a dedicated page on the Southern Poverty Law Centers’ extremist files[iii] came together to create what would be Proposition 187 in California. Aside from their shared contempt for undocumented immigrants they had no previous experience in immigration policy or state legislative policy, and no financial backing. They were able to garner assistance from experienced help: state legislators and former federal immigration bureaucrats, and obtain enough signatures in one of the most populous states in the union to put Proposition 187 on a state ballot. This group of people were then able to pass one of the most significant pieces of immigration policy in the 20th century.

This story seems unique, but my investigations show it is not as exceptional as we would like to believe. Other interest groups, also with little to no immigration policy experience are fundamentally changing state immigration legislation and shaping state and national discussions about immigration policy. The experiences of state interest groups are contextual, based on their state institutions, and their own political sophistication to exploit their context. Generally, groups advocating for immigrant rights may face an uphill battle in states without direct democracy mechanisms. In these states, they must use traditional social movement tactics like lobbying and protests to enact permissive immigration policies. Other groups advocating for restrictive immigration in direct democracy states can and have used initiatives and referendums to pass restrictive laws or block the passage of permissive legislation. Twenty-four states in the Union allow for some type of citizen participation, with countless more stories of how state interest groups operated within these state institutions to enact their policy preferences.

What explains the increasing role states are playing in state immigration legislation and what factors influence state immigration laws? The current scholarship argues that state immigration laws are affected by demographic, economic, and partisan changes. However, these investigations overlook how the variation in state legislative institutions and state interest groups affect the passage and content of subnational immigration laws. This book addresses these two larger puzzles (1) what affects the passage of state immigration laws over time and (2) What are the causal mechanisms linking state legislative institutions and state immigration policy?


[i] Dizon, Lily.1995. “Grip of Courts Fails to Stifle Prop. 187: Pioneers: The four Orange County residents who brought the initiative about are deeply involved in similar efforts underway in other states.” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-11-08-mn-776-story.html (accessed September 9, 2019).

[ii] Martinez, Gebe and Doreen Carvajal. 1994. “Creators of Prop. 187 Largely Escape Spotlight: Ballot: From secret O.C. location, political novices and veterans spawn strong drive against illegal immigration.” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 4. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-09-04-mn-34888-story.html

[iii] Southern Poverty Law Center. “BARBARA COE.” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/barbara-coe (accessed September 9, 2019).