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Wilson Seeks Lift From Wave of Boat People

As a campaign scrapper, Gov. Pete Wilson has few equals. He’s swift on his feet and quickly spots openings--even one provided 2,500 miles away by a grumpy old Communist dictator.

Those thousands of Cuban refugees turned loose into the Florida Straits have become Fidel Castro’s gift to the Republican governor of California. Wilson unwrapped the present after Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles pleaded for help to his fellow Democrat in the White House and President Clinton responded with a massive effort of military interdiction, rescue and detention.

Hey, what’s this? Wilson cried in indignation. Why Florida and not California?

Why isn’t it a national emergency when 2,400 foreigners, on average, illegally enter California each week? Why isn’t Clinton protecting this border? What’s different about Florida?

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Wilson told me he suspects three things: Castro and the daring refugees are hot news that pressures the President, while California’s story is old; Clinton wants to help Chiles win reelection; Atty. Gen. Janet Reno herself is from Miami.

There’s also a fourth factor Wilson didn’t mention: It’s one thing to confront nemesis Castro, another to alienate friendly Mexico.

But no matter. The campaigning governor really was accentuating a larger point to voters: He’s the California candidate who has been pushing hardest against illegal immigration, an issue many believe rescued his political career.

And by capitalizing on the Castro-Clinton row with a major news conference in San Diego and a full-page ad in the New York Times, Wilson also set the stage for his endorsement of Proposition 187, probably this fall’s most controversial ballot measure.

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There has been recent speculation that Wilson may be backing away from the initiative its supporters call SOS (Save Our State), perhaps even preparing to oppose it. Forget that. The governor says Proposition 187 is a way to “force the issue” of illegal immigration into the courts and Congress.

He also clearly expects it to be popular and turn out conservatives for him on Nov. 8.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that states must educate illegal immigrants. It’s costing California $1.2 billion annually. Proposition 187 forbids this public schooling, a provision that likely would be struck down by some federal judge. But Wilson and the measure’s sponsors hope the Supreme Court will reconsider the issue.

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“Basically what SOS will do is create lawsuits, which I think will be a very useful thing,” Wilson says.

Counters an initiative opponent, Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who is running for insurance commissioner: “Why waste all the campaign money? Why not just go to the court directly? This is more a Republican get-out-the-vote strategy than solving a problem.”

Proposition 187 has other contentious features. It would deny non-emergency public health care and social services to illegal immigrants. And it has a snitch clause requiring school, health and law officials to report suspected illegal immigrants to the INS.

“We’re going to be more suspect than anyone,” says Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Legislative Latino Caucus. “The browner the skin, the (more) different the accent, the more suspect. That’s discriminatory. I’ve seen the movies, read the books. Back then (under Nazis), there were stars (that Jews were required to wear).”

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The governor says he understands why the snitch clause “bothers people,” but notes teachers must report “suspected child abusers.” He adds, “when you go into the booth, you either vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You don’t vote ‘maybe.’ And I’ve never seen an initiative free of some imperfection (nor) many statutes.”

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This is one place where the gubernatorial candidates sharply differ. And if Wilson can finesse it, 187 will become a wedge issue.

Treasurer Kathleen Brown hopes the measure will turn out Latinos and liberals opposed to it and that by strongly opposing the proposition, she will be more warmly embraced by these Democratic core groups.

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“Let me be clear--illegal immigration is a very real problem,” Brown says. “But Proposition 187 is flawed. It would throw kids out of school, leading to more gangs and drugs. It would deny health care, inviting the spread of deadly diseases. And it would require Californians to turn in other Californians who might be ‘suspect.’ ”

Asserts Proposition 187 campaign manager Bob Kiley: “Our polling shows people don’t care what the opposition says. This whole thing’s about sending a message to Sacramento and to Washington. And it’s going to land on Clinton’s desk.”

Meanwhile, Wilson is sending his own message--with the help of an aging dictator.


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