Prop. 187 Turns Up Heat in U.S. Immigration Debate : Election: Backers seek revolution in national policy. Foes predict ill-educated, disease-prone underclass.


Three months before Election Day, the ballot measure known as Proposition 187 already seems destined to join the pantheon of California initiatives that periodically reshape national debate. Its backers have immodestly dubbed the proposal Save Our State, SOS for short, and its subject is illegal immigration.

“You are the posse,” an initiative co-founder recently told a receptive gathering in Orange County, “and SOS is the rope.”

A few days later, the proposition’s looming presence cast a pall over the 20th anniversary ceremonies of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the Mexican American electoral rights organization. “Remember,” a speaker urgently warned a disheartened crowd in a Pasadena ballroom, “there’s only 90 days left to save California’s Latinos!”

After years of increasingly rancorous debate about immigration, Californians on Nov. 8 will get to vote directly on the issue, with likely repercussions for the governor’s race and national immigration policies. Both sides view the ballot as a kind of plebiscite on California’s future, although the issue at hand focuses on the narrower question of public benefits for illegal immigrants.


Nationally, the vote may influence immigration discourse much as Proposition 13 forged a new consensus on taxes and other California initiatives have crystallized matters as varied as environmental policy and auto insurance.

Initiative backers acknowledge that what they really want is a revolution in national immigration policy, the exclusive domain of Congress and the executive branch.

With limited influence over Washington, however, proponents have turned to the liberal California initiative process in an effort to involve state and local government in immigration matters to an unprecedented degree.

California--destination of perhaps 40% of all new immigrants to the United States--is unquestionably the battleground. Large-scale immigration, particularly from Latin America and Asia, has dramatically altered the state’s demography in the last two decades, dismaying many longtime state residents, particularly non-Latino white suburbanites, whose discontent has fueled Proposition 187.


But even as polls show the measure gathering widespread support among voters, its very premise--that public services and schools draw illegal immigrants--remains a matter of fierce debate. The initiative doesn’t directly address jobs, widely considered by scholars and other authorities to be the principal lure for immigrants. Nor does Proposition 187 do anything about the porous U.S.-Mexico border.

Proponents acknowledge that jobs are a magnet, and they would like beefed-up border enforcement. But drafters say Proposition 187 is the most that they could wring out of California law. They want to deliver a message to Capitol Hill and the White House to spur more changes.

On a practical level, even if Proposition 187 passes in November, it could be years before its major provisions are enacted, if ever, because of conflict with state and federal laws, constitutional protections and court rulings. Implementation could largely depend on protracted legal battles.

Proposition 187’s best-known provisions would bar illegal immigrants from public schooling, non-emergency health care and social services.


To accomplish those bans, the proposition would create a new realm of official inquiry by police, school administrators, social workers and health providers. Officials would be required to quiz people about their citizenship or immigration status and then to report those “reasonably suspected” of being illegal immigrants to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and “any other government agency” that requests it.

In perhaps the most drastic move, school officials would be obligated to verify the status not only of students but of parents and guardians--even if their children are U.S. citizens. By 1996, parents of all public school students statewide would be forced to prove citizenship or legal residence status.

These laws would test legal and ethical standards of confidentiality, particularly for doctors, nurses, social workers and others whose professions are steeped in privacy.

Explicit in the measure’s wording is that interrogators must rely on suspicion. With dozens of official immigration categories, only qualified U.S. authorities can determine status with certainty.


The broad new reporting mechanisms, proponents believe, will prompt large-scale “self-deportations” and discourage others from sojourning here without papers. But there is no guarantee anyone will leave the country. State authorities have no standing to deport people. Nor can the state force the notoriously understaffed and inefficient INS to act.

Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to back the initiative, which is already endorsed by the California Republican Party and several GOP legislators. Co-authoring the measure are former INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson and Harold W. Ezell, former top-ranking Western administrator of the INS.

“This is not an anti-immigrant initiative, it’s an anti-illegal immigrant initiative,” said Nelson, who headed the INS during the Bush Administration. “The people of California have simply had enough.”

Among the initiative’s grass-roots supporters, there is a barely concealed layer of antagonism toward illegal immigrants. The initiative, they say, is one of many steps necessary to drive them from the state.


“Illegal aliens are killing us in California,” said Ronald Prince, a Tustin accountant who heads the Proposition 187 campaign. “Those who support illegal immigration are, in effect, anti-American.”

Critics see proponents’ efforts as Big Brotherism run amok, an invitation to official harassment of the “foreign-looking.” They envision an ill-educated underclass of youngsters roaming the streets, prone to contagious diseases and drawn to crime, posing constant hazards for citizens and other legal residents. Lost in the fiery oratory, immigrant advocates say, are the many ways that illegal immigrants’ low-wage labor and tax contributions have benefited Californians and propped up the regional economy.

Joining Latino and immigrant activists opposing the measure is a broad coalition of health professionals, school officials, religious leaders, unions and law enforcement authorities. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the state’s top-ranking Roman Catholic cleric, calls Proposition 187 “a devastating assault on human dignity,” and has vowed to use the churches’ resources and the power of the pulpit to battle it.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown also has pledged to campaign against the initiative. Most Democratic candidates will also probably oppose it.


Although Latinos generally oppose illegal immigration at about the same rate as other voters, polls have shown that they dislike Proposition 187 much more than the general electorate. This reflects a widely held view among Latinos that an anti-Latino sentiment underlies the initiative, and that Latinos would bear the brunt of any new investigative and reporting requirements.

The initiative’s potential fiscal effects are another matter of great dispute, reflecting disagreements about how much illegal immigrants use public services.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the proposals would probably save about $200 million annually in state and local funds, not including education spending. Excluding more than 300,000 illegal immigrant youngsters from public schools could save another $1.2 billion, but this ban would probably be stayed pending a lengthy court battle.

However, the state analysts also found that the proposal would cost tens of millions of dollars annually to implement, and potentially more than $100 million during the first year. Much of the price tag involves training school personnel and others in the often-arcane intricacies of immigration law.


Moreover, the analysis found that the proposal could put at risk billions--perhaps as much as $15 billion--in federal funds now provided to California for health, education and welfare programs. This is because of conflicts between the measure’s provisions and federal privacy, non-discrimination and procedural requirements. U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has already indicated in writing that the proposal would endanger federal education money.

The following is a breakdown of Proposition 187’s major components:


The proposition’s most incendiary (and perhaps most legally problematic) provision would bar illegal immigrants from public elementary and secondary schools.


Students believed to be in the country illegally would be given 90 calendar days to produce legal documentation or “accomplish an orderly transition to a school in the child’s country of origin.” Verification for new pupils would begin Jan. 1. One year later, students already enrolled--along with parents and guardians--would have to prove their status.

New procedures would be required to verify the status of the more than 5 million public school students in the state and at least as many parents--some of whose whereabouts would undoubtedly be unknown or difficult to track.

If Proposition 187 is approved, the schools provisions will doubtless trigger a court challenge under federal or state law--and possibly both. Drafters have said they would like to see the U.S. Supreme Court revisit its Plyler vs. Doe decision, the landmark 1982 ruling stating that illegal immigrant children are entitled to a public school education. The California Supreme Court, citing the state Constitution, ruled in 1992 that public schooling is a fundamental right--an even broader interpretation than that of the federal justices.

Even if the measure passes, youngsters who are undocumented would still be eligible for federally funded school meal and Head Start programs.



Proposition 187 would bar publicly funded clinics and hospitals from providing care to illegal immigrants, except in emergencies. Federal law requires that no one be refused emergency treatment, generally interpreted to include delivery of babies.

But the measure would deny prenatal and postnatal care to women lacking papers--a proscription that physicians say would elevate public health expenses for their U.S.-born children, who would be citizens.

A range of public health benefits is now accessible to illegal immigrants, young and old. Many programs have been kept open to everyone for a deliberate reason: to head off infectious diseases that inevitably cost less to prevent or treat at early stages than afterward, when the illnesses become acute and may spread to others, regardless of immigration status. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant workers handle food in restaurants and fields.


Children who are undocumented could presumably no longer receive immunizations at hospitals and clinics that receive public money--the vast majority of such facilities. Some fear the resulting spread of diseases such as measles, mumps, polio, rubella and diphtheria.

Also obliged to curtail services would be county-run hospitals and public clinics that provide basic medical services to poor, uninsured residents. Disorders that are treated range from minor wounds to care of serious infectious ailments such as tuberculosis, a grave problem among many immigrant populations. California leads the nation in reported cases of TB. Some experts predict a rise of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection, syphilis and gonorrhea if the measure passes.

In addition, this provision would probably terminate publicly funded long-term nursing home care for undocumented elderly and disabled people, along with kidney dialysis treatment.



Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for most major social service payouts, such as food stamps, unemployment insurance and federal child welfare payments.

But the proposal also would exclude illegal immigrants from publicly funded family planning initiatives and a smattering of specialized government efforts targeting at-risk populations, including abused and parentless youth, the elderly, blind, mentally impaired, homeless, and drug and alcohol abusers. Nonprofit social service groups that use state grants to assist illegal immigrants would probably have to stop.


This section requires that law enforcement agencies “fully cooperate” with the INS, and it expressly prohibits legislative, administrative or other actions banning such collaboration. The result would be the likely nullification of all municipal sanctuary ordinances protecting refugees and the end of limited-cooperation agreements with the INS that some law enforcement agencies (including the Los Angeles Police Department) have imposed.


The provision would require that police, deputies, Highway Patrol officers and all other California law enforcement officers notify the INS and state attorney general’s office of any arrestees “suspected” of being illegal immigrants. Those identified would have to be advised that “apart from any criminal justice proceedings, he or she must either obtain legal status or leave the United States.”

Critics--including Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, whose name appears on the anti-Proposition 187 ballot statement--say the provision turns police officers into INS agents, heightening community distrust. Fearing deportation, detractors say, crime victims and witnesses may hesitate to contact police.


Proposition 187 would amend state law to include stiffer penalties for anyone who uses, manufactures or sells false documents designed to “conceal” citizenship or immigration status. Much of the proposal largely duplicates U.S. and state statutes, which already criminalize the surging false documentation trade. Ironically, authorities say Proposition 187, with its greatly widened mandate for identification, would probably boost the black market in documents to new heights.


Proposition 187: What It Does

Proposition 187, which will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, seeks to discourage illegal immigration by denying publicly funded benefits. Critics say immigrants come to the United States for jobs, not benefits. Here are the major provisions:


* Current law: Court rulings have held that undocumented children are entitled to elementary and secondary public school education. Illegal immigrants may also attend state colleges and universities, but most are charged non-resident tuition rates.


* Proposition 187: Bars enrollment in all public schools, colleges and universities. Parents or guardians of all schoolchildren, including U.S. citizens, would likewise have to demonstrate legal residence. The law would oblige school administrators to report students and parents suspected of being illegal immigrants.


* Current law: Illegal immigrants may receive a wide variety of care at publicly funded hospitals and clinics. Federal law bars health facilities from denying emergency aid to anyone.

* Proposition 187: Denies non-emergency public care to those who cannot prove legal status, including prenatal and postnatal services.



* Current law: Federal and state laws bar illegal immigrants from most major benefits, such as welfare and unemployment insurance.

* Proposition 187: Cuts off a host of other state and locally funded programs that are directed toward troubled youths, the elderly, the blind and others with special needs.



* Current law: Many local police agencies avoid getting involved in immigration matters because they believe it would discourage victims and witnesses from reporting crimes.

* Proposition 187: State, city and county law enforcement authorities would be obligated to question arrestees about their citizenship or immigration status and report suspected illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and state attorney general.


* Current law: The use of fraudulent documents to prove residency is illegal.


* Proposition 187: Creates new state felonies and stiffens penalties.