Sen. Dianne Feinstein was fighting for her political life in 1994, facing a tight election that was swinging on the issue of immigration.
Proposition 187, which would cut many public services to those in California illegally, was leading in the polls and her Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, Michael Huffington, had embraced it. Her own television campaign ad captured a shadowy image, presumably of immigrants streaming across the border from Mexico, and touted her efforts to secure funding for more border agents and fencing. Yet, with weeks to go before election day, Feinstein stood strong against Prop. 187.
“I know that this could cost me votes, quite possibly even the election,” Feinstein said at the time. “But I simply do not believe it will work.”
She won, despite the wave of support for the measure.
California is a much different state both politically and demographically 24 years later. And as Feinstein seeks reelection this year, she is facing another immigration challenge, this time from the left.
Her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, released a video this week attacking her stance on immigration and making parallels between comments Feinstein made in the 1990s about criminal immigrants and recent anti-immigrant quotes from President Trump, whose crackdown is highly unpopular in California.
The video — released only online — recreates scenes from De León’s childhood, being raised by a single immigrant mother who worked as a housekeeper. It goes on to show how De León’s life would have changed had he lived in present-day America and been separated from his mother by officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The video includes two clips of Feinstein, one from 1994, where she says: “The illegal immigrants who come here and commit felonies, that’s not what this nation,” before it cuts off. The second clip, from 1993, begins mid-sentence, and includes her saying, “I say return them to their own country where that country may be.” The video then cuts to a clip of Trump referring to immigrants as rapists. Soft, dramatic music plays throughout.
De León said in an interview Wednesday that he wants Californians to understand that Feinstein’s priority in Congress has not been protecting immigrants.
“You’re the ranking member of the judiciary committee, and you represent the largest state in the nation with the largest number of immigrants — you’re supposed to be the leading voice,” De León said.
The video is an attempt by de León to spark interest in a campaign that has gotten little attention and in a race where numerous polls have shown Feinstein holding a significant and steady lead.
De León has tried to position himself a leader of the California resistance to Trump in a state that is home to a quarter of the country’s immigrants, including roughly 2.3 million living here without legal residency.
He was a key architect of California’s “sanctuary state” legislation, the most far-reaching of its kind in the country. It limits state and local law enforcement communication with federal immigration authorities, and prevents officers from questioning and holding people on immigration violations.
But the bill sent to Gov. Jerry Brown was a drastically scaled-back version of the first version of SB 54, the result of tough negotiations between Brown and De León in the last weeks of the legislative session. It included provisions that allow federal immigration authorities to keep working with state corrections officials and to continue entering county jails to question immigrants. The new law also permits police and sheriffs to share jail release dates of inmates and to transfer them to immigration authorities if they have been convicted of one or more crimes from a list of 800 outlined in a previous law, the California Trust Act.
In rejecting the notion that Feinstein hasn’t been a leader in protecting California’s immigrant communities, her supporters noted the parallels between what Feinstein is quoted saying in the video and what De León himself has supported.
“From opposing Proposition 187 and championing AgJobs to defending Dreamers and authorizing legislation to end Trump’s policy of separating families at the border, Senator Feinstein has been a strong leader and defender of California’s hard working immigrant families,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a comment sent on his behalf by the Feinstein campaign.
Her supporters also pointed out that Feinstein authored legislation to stop Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the border, and voted to preserve DACA many times.
However, De León’s ad struck a chord with several in the immigrant rights movement.
“To our members and membership base, the ad was very relatable,” said Diana Colin, program director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Colin said De León’s candidacy is a result of Prop. 187, which activated a lot of college-age Latinos, propelling them to get involved in immigrant rights movement.
Although the organization hasn’t publicly endorsed either candidate, Colin said they’ve been critical of Feinstein in the past for being too soft on immigration rights and not initially voting on legislation that would advance immigrant rights.
Last year, Colin said, Feinstein had to be convinced to hold back her vote on the budget unless it came with a vote for legislation that would include the DREAM Act.
(It was a funding bill to prevent the government from shutting down and, after hearing from interest groups, Feinstein not only voted no on the bill but also urged colleagues to join her.)
Karla Estrada, a 27-year-old immigrant rights organizer based in Los Angeles, said she’s not a fan of Feinstein because she doesn’t believe the U.S. senator is progressive enough on immigration at a time when it’s most needed.
Still, she said, De León’s ad went a bit too far. Estrada pointed out that the clips of Feinstein in the ad are old and that she seems to no longer hold stridently anti-immigrant ideas.
“He’s losing, and that’s why he is resorting to those type of attack ads,” Estrada said.
Larry Gerston, a professor of political science emeritus at San Jose State University, said Feinstein’s comments on the tape also speak to how much immigration politics have changed over the years.
“This is what happens to a person who is in public service for many decades,” Gerston said. “Because in that time, most public servants have adapted to different issues of the day as conditions and times change.”
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.