Senator Dianne Feinstein in the mid-1990s

The French have a thing with the enigmatic and the pithy. They say things like, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” As usual, they got it only half right. Recent experience tells us the more things stay the same, the worse they get.

Bringing all this to mind is the 25th anniversary of Prop. 187, that rabidly crackpot anti-immigrant ballot measure California voters overwhelmingly approved ​— ​all 59 percent of us. The measure, predictably, never went into effect, the courts having deemed it unconstitutional almost before the election results were finalized. 

But intent counts for something, and backers of 187 ​— ​coincidentally the criminal code shorthand for homicide ​— ​fully intended to deny public education and public health care, among many other things, to anyone who could not show proof of citizenship. Had Prop. 187 stood, public school teachers and ER doctors would have become de facto immigration agents. They would, in essence, have become The Wall.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about President Trump’s decision to abolish the so-called Dream Act ​— ​enacted in 2012 via executive fiat by President Obama ​— ​which offers legal protection from deportation for 700,000 immigrants under the age of 16 brought to this country illegally by their parents. According to the instant analysis of media observers, five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are inclined to give Trump what he wants. 

Were that to happen, we are told 30,000 high-achieving and law-abiding immigrants a month will begin losing the right to drive legally or hold down a job. Fully half the Dreamers, we are told, are enrolled in school; 90 percent are working. In the 24th Congressional District ​— ​which includes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties ​— ​there are 4,800 registered Dreamers. Another 7,200, reportedly, are eligible but have not qualified. The qualification process, by the way, screens out anyone charged with a felony or multiple misdemeanors. 

The removal of our Dreamers from the 24th District — represented, by the way, by Congressmember Salud Carbajal, who broke into this country legally at the tender age of 5​ — ​will lower the district’s Gross Domestic Product to the tune of $260 million a year.

Michael and Arianna Huffington in the mid-1990s

A couple of years ago, I found myself attending an emergency preparedness meeting on the city’s lower Westside. Those in attendance ​— ​most of whom spoke Spanish as their primary language ​— ​were not trying to learn how to be prepared for the inevitable eventuality of fires and floods. Instead, they were focused on learning what legal documents they needed to fill out so as to legally assign their parental rights to friends or relatives. Who would take care of their kids should they be suddenly deported? Who would the school district release their children to if they were not there to pick them up? 

That’s the sort of meeting you never forget.

I also remember Prop. 187. No one took it seriously at first. It was the brainchild of two former big shots with what was then the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services, forced to quit in disgrace. One spent $1,500 in taxpayer dollars to have an oil painting of himself commissioned. Another was playing footsies with Imelda Marcos, the Filipino dictator infamous for her pathological shoe fetish. 

But when Republican Governor Pete Wilson ​— ​normally a square-jawed moderate ​— ​found himself facing an attack from his right while running for reelection, he resorted to the race card. Wilson will forever be remembered for the shrill hysteria of his “They’re coming!” ads. Say what you want about shrill hysteria, but it works. By fanning those flames, Wilson got both himself and Prop. 187 elected.

At that time, Santa Barbara was consumed by a freakish political sideshow which would have been merely grotesque if not for the massive political consequences it would eventually have. Senator Dianne Feinstein was fighting for her political life against Santa Barbara resident and billionaire Michael Huffington, a congenial Republican carpetbagger who no one would have taken seriously but for the $30 million he spent of his own money to buy a senate seat. 

Community members rallied in defense of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) at the Santa Barbara Courthouse in 2017.

Two years prior ​— ​just six months after moving to Montecito ​— ​Huffington had already spent $5 million to knock off entrenched Republican incumbent Congressmember Bob Lagomarsino. As a Congressmember, Huffington proved pathologically secretive, refusing to disclose his whereabouts to even his own staff and ordering his press secretary to destroy all copies of his voting record. Personally, Huffington wasn’t such a bad guy; politically, he was a flagrant nonentity. He was so frequently derided as an “empty suit” that one columnist opined this libeled the entire garment industry.

At the time, everyone, including the Independent, knew Huffington and his celebrity wife, Arianna Huffington, employed an illegal nanny. However, it didn’t qualify as a “news” story until Huffington ​— ​in a fit of bland ambition ​— ​came out in favor of Prop. 187. (When conservative columnist George Will asked what immigrant kids would do if not allowed into school, Huffington ​— ​born with a tarnished silver spoon in his ear ​— ​replied, “Well, I would hope that, in many cases, the parents would still pay for some type of education for the children.”)

When Huffington endorsed 187, Feinstein finally came out against it. But what really saved the day for Feinstein ​— ​not to mention her next 25 years ​— ​was “nannygate.” Huffington had cosponsored a bill making it a felony to transport illegal immigrants across state lines for work, something he and Arianna had done with their nanny multiple times. The Independent reported this. 

Huffington’s first response was deflection; specifically, he publicly accused me of trying to bribe the nanny’s husband, who was at home when I knocked on their door. For the record, the thought definitely crossed my mind, but I lacked the funds to make a credible offer, let alone a lifetime of full-time employment for the nanny and her extended family, as the Huffington campaign alleged.

Personally, the experience was beneficial. All reporters should know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a public accusation. My trophy from all this is a letter written by Bob Dole ​— ​then a powerful U.S. Senator ​— ​to the head of INS demanding to know when the INS was going to investigate my attempted bribery.

In an attempt to salvage their campaign, the Huffingtons held a press conference at which Michael sought to accept “responsibility” for the nanny but left Arianna to shoulder the “blame.”

That didn’t fly either. Of course, that was back in the halcyon days when hypocrisy still shocked voters. Huffington wound up losing by the narrowest of margins. Feinstein squeaked by with less than two percentage points. 

The good news: Bullshit had consequences. The bad news: It no longer does.

Today, we’re separating kids from families, locking them in cages, and forgetting where we put them. The nation seems too numb to muster much outrage. It’s as if we are all living under an airport: so much noise.

We have a certified Manchurian Candidate-in-Chief now occupying the White House obviously fixated by white nationalist fantasies. Hate crimes are up at a record rate; in the past two years, hate crimes against Latinos have jumped 51 percent. So long as the president delivers on court appointments ​— ​as he most definitely has ​— ​his base will remain solid.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Not hardly. They’re a lot worse. 


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