Caught in the web of scapegoating : national coverage of California's Proposition 187

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Williams, Christopher Newell, 1951-

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The current heated national debate over immigration policy is a reminder of the contentious relationship the United States historically has had with its immigrant population, especially those who enter the country without proper documentation. For example, a major issue confronting California voters in 1994 was Proposition 187, a plan to deny social services to the state’s undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom were nonwhite. In this study, I argue that this issue took place during an immigration “panic,” one of several that took place in the United States during the 20th century. In these “panics,” which also occurred in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s, undocumented immigrants served as convenient scapegoats for larger social ills. A significant and under-researched aspect of these events was the role played by the major U. S. mainstream media in perpetuating this scapegoating process. The study takes an in-depth look at how the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times covered the 1994 debate over Proposition 187, which occurred during the most recent of these immigration panics. It concludes that these newspapers’ coverage of 187 was shaped by the discourse of California’s elite politicians (both liberal and conservative) that focused on the predominantly non-white population of undocumented immigrants as “the problem.” By framing the undocumented as deviant, this coverage helped perpetuate the elite “blame the victim” discourse that diverted public attention from other issues facing the state, such as the fact that California was enduring its most significant recession since the Great Depression.