Make It ‘SOS’ for Snake-Oil Salesmen : Proposition 187: Who’s behind this noxious nostrum? Two ex-bureaucrats who failed to enforce immigration laws.

<i> Carl Shusterman is a former trial attorney for the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. </i>

As a former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service prosecutor who for years helped to deport illegal aliens, I support strict enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Nevertheless, it makes me furious that two mothballed bureaucrats--Alan Nelson and Harold Ezell--have sponsored a November ballot proposition whose passage could expel thousands of children from our public schools, all in the name of immigration control. Although they call their idea the “save our state” or “SOS” initiative, a better description would be the “snake-oil salesmen” initiative.

Consider the credentials of the two sponsors. Nelson was commissioner of the INS throughout most of the 1980s. Ezell was INS western regional commissioner, Nelson’s right-hand man in California. Both were political appointees with no previous immigration experience or expertise.

In 1986, Congress gave them a forceful new weapon in the war against illegal immigration: the power to fine and jail the employers of illegal aliens. What was their track record in prosecuting employers who violated the 1986 law? Suffice it to say that not a single employer of illegal aliens went to jail during their tenure. Their failure to vigorously enforce the employer-sanctions provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, to beef up the Border Patrol or to modernize the INS’ antiquated record-keeping system helped send our illegal-alien problem spinning out of control.

How is it, then, that Nelson and Ezell have suddenly emerged to propose that California adopt its own immigration policy--one that targets schoolchildren rather than illegal workers or their employers? Nelson is a lobbyist for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes not only illegal immigration but most legal immigration as well. Ezell is now an immigration consultant who assists high-rolling foreign businessmen obtain U.S. visas.


Proposition 187 would force school districts to refuse to enroll students who could not produce papers proving their legal status. Even children who are citizens would be forced to turn over information to the state about the immigration status of their parents. All suspicious information would be turned over to the local INS office, where already overworked investigators would have to dig through piles of paperwork in search of illegal aliens.

Critics of the 1986 law claim that it is not working because illegal workers use fake documents to gain employment. If Proposition 187 passes, we will be faced with the spectacle of children presenting fake birth certificates and green cards to their teachers. This is a good way to subsidize the illegal-document trade, but is it a good way to enforce our immigration laws?

The sponsors of this initiative should heed the truism that those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. As recently as 1982, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a Texas law very similar to the SOS initiative. The majority justices held that “penalizing the . . . child is an ineffectual--as well as unjust--way of deterring the parent.”

Even the dissenting justices agreed that “it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children--including illegal aliens--of an elementary education . . . and that it would be folly--and wrong--to tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons.”

Nelson, Ezell and their backers should be honest with voters: Immigration policy is made in Washington, not Sacramento. We already spend more than $1 billion a year funding the INS. Nelson and Ezell had their chance and failed to make an impact when they ran the agency in the 1980s.

Most California voters are naturally fed up with illegal immigration, but we are sophisticated enough to know that depriving children of an education will only make matters worse without making a dent in illegal immigration. Presented with the facts, I believe voters will turn down the initiative. Nelson and Ezell will have to peddle their snake oil somewhere else.