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Officials Take Sides on Worth of Prop. 187 : Politics: Controversy builds over ‘Save Our State’ measure that would deny many public benefits to illegal immigrants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors opposes it. So does the local chapter of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. and a countywide advisory panel to the public health department.

But so far, the true depth of feeling over the so-called “Save Our State” initiative has not been demonstrated locally. Stay tuned.

Supporters and opponents of the Nov. 8 ballot measure--which would deny schooling, non-emergency health care and other public benefits to illegal immigrants--have spent the summer gearing up countywide campaigns aimed at winning over voters.

Now, less than three months before Election Day, both sides say they are set to go toe-to-toe over a proposition that holds the promise--or the threat--of further fueling the already fiery immigration debate.

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“The law needs to be upheld and government should not act as a magnet for lawbreakers,” said Steve Frank, coordinator of the Ventura County campaign in support of the measure. “If they can’t get jobs and they can’t get benefits, they will have to go back where they came from.”

Polls show the initiative gathering widespread support among voters. And it could play a significant role this fall in at least one of the races for Ventura County’s two congressional seats.

With that in mind, groups throughout Ventura County have launched a series of efforts aimed at reversing the public mood. Opponents say they hope to reveal the initiative for what they believe it is: a misguided measure that violates the California and U.S. constitutions, turns citizens into immigration agents and casts a shadow of suspicion on Latinos, Asians and other nonwhites.

“It’s a very divisive initiative,” said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who on Tuesday will urge his fellow councilmen to adopt a resolution opposing the measure. “As time goes on, and people see it for what it really is, I think more and more agencies are going to take a position against it.”

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Its official name is Proposition 187. Supporters have dubbed it “Save Our State,” or SOS for short.

The initiative would bar illegal immigrants from public education, non-emergency health services and other publicly funded programs. To accomplish this, teachers, police officers, social workers and health care providers would be enlisted to weed out illegal immigrants.

Beyond the desire to limit public benefits to U.S. citizens or legal residents, supporters of the measure acknowledge that what they really want to do is reshape national immigration policy by forcing judicial review of court rulings that guarantee education and other services to the undocumented.

It is likely that even if voters pass the measure, major provisions of it will be tied up for years by protracted legal battles.

“I think it’s a sad situation that it has to be done in the form of initiative because the federal government has not done its job in enforcing immigration law,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a Proposition 187 supporter and longtime advocate of tougher controls on illegal immigration.

“But I’ll tell you,” Gallegly added: “If it passes the way I think it’s going to pass, it will send a very strong message to those in the Congress that the people of California can’t take any more.”

Many opponents of the initiative do not argue the need for some type of immigration reform. They simply question the wisdom of a measure that would deny education and health care to people who are unlikely to return to their homelands simply because they can no longer get public benefits.

“We feel that it is unhealthy public policy,” said Barbara Thorpe, chairwoman of the Ventura County Public Health Community Advisory Board. “We are not saying that illegal immigration isn’t a problem. But what we are saying is that this is not the way to go about solving that problem.”

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The advisory board to county public health has officially opposed Proposition 187. Thorpe points out that the initiative overlooks a simple public health concept: If the health of one segment of a community is allowed to decline, the health of the entire community is jeopardized.

Thorpe said she doesn’t believe that illegal immigrants drain health services the way framers of Proposition 187 say they do.

“I don’t see them as heavy users or, as this initiative would have you think, abusers of the system,” she said. “They’ve picked the wrong crowd, I think.”

In perhaps the most drastic provision of the initiative, school officials would be obligated to verify the legal status not only of students but of parents and guardians, even if their children are U.S. citizens.

This provision will probably trigger a court challenge and possibly a review of state and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that guarantee public schooling to illegal immigrant children.

“I think we need some discussion about whether or not it will, in the long run, benefit this county and this state to not provide education and public health services to children who are here,” said Chuck Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools.

“My concern,” Weis added, “is that this dialogue is really about trying to find a scapegoat for our economic problems.”

Supporters of the measure acknowledge that hard times have a lot to do with the creation of Proposition 187. But more to the point, they argue that illegal immigrants have overrun the state and that California simply has had enough.

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So deep is public sentiment on the issue that it could have repercussions this fall in several political races, including the contest in the 24th Congressional District, which includes Thousand Oaks.

In that race, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) is being challenged by Calabasas Republican Richard Sybert, a former aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

The two are on record in support of legislation to curb illegal immigration. But Sybert supports Proposition 187 and Beilenson does not.

“Tony Beilenson has done a very good job of engaging in anti-illegal immigration rhetoric while at the same time doing absolutely nothing about it,” Sybert said. “I certainly plan to make it (Proposition 187) an issue. On immigration, as with so many things, he says one thing here at home and he does another thing in Washington.”

Beilenson said his record in support of legislation to stem the tide of illegal immigration speaks for itself. But he said he believes that many of the provisions of the ballot measure will be ineffective, and that some are downright offensive.

“The problem of illegal immigration is extremely serious and has to be dealt with in a substantive way,” Beilenson said. “But if one truly cares about this issue . . . then you concentrate on the things that hold out some real promise of stopping illegal immigration.”

Gallegly, Ventura County’s other congressman, said he thinks the practical effect of Proposition 187 will be to spur changes in immigration policy on Capitol Hill and the White House.

He said he believes measures he has long championed--such as denial of citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and calling for counterfeit-resistant identification cards--will gain widespread support because of the measure’s passage.

“You’ve never heard me say that this is a panacea or a perfect initiative,” Gallegly said. “What this is is a public expression of frustration that says we’ve got to do something about the problem.”

But opponents of the ballot measure say they fear that the practical effect of Proposition 187 will be to unfairly pin the state’s economic woes on those who can’t stick up for themselves.

“People look for easy answers and this is the easy way out,” said Moorpark Councilman Bernardo Perez, president of the Latino advocacy group El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.

Perez will debate the issue with Steve Frank early next month. The two squared off in another debate last month.

“My concern,” Perez said, “is that Proposition 187, and the political rhetoric from both sides of the aisle, are getting us away from responsible and reasonable dialogue on immigration policy.”


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