Following an emotionally charged debate that continued for months, representatives of the San Fernando Valley’s 21 chambers of commerce this week voted to support Proposition 187--the controversial state initiative seeking to restrict health and education benefits for illegal immigrants.
The chamber members, representing more than 8,500 mostly small and medium-sized Valley businesses, had been split over support of the measure because they disagreed on whether Proposition 187 would do what proponents say it will.
Chamber representatives said they agreed that illegal immigration has become a costly local problem that is being ignored by government decision-makers. But they differed on how to approach the problem.
“People are saying, ‘I don’t like this Third World takeover,’ ” said Guy Weddington McCreary, a North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce member favoring the initiative. “It is literally an invasion and very upsetting.”
But others countered that the Valley’s lingering economic troubles, as well as demographic and other social changes, are not likely to be reversed with passage of the proposition. They point to additional costs and responsibilities the measure would create. Besides restricting government services, it would require local authorities to report suspected illegal immigrants.
“We didn’t feel that requiring medical and educational personnel to be INS cops was appropriate,” said James Stewart, member of the Mid-San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, which voted against support of Proposition 187. “We know we have an illegal immigration problem. But the solution is to do a better job at the border. This doesn’t do anything besides create more bureaucracy.”
The 15-10 vote on Wednesday supporting the initiative by the San Fernando Valley’s United Chambers of Commerce is largely symbolic. Even so, chamber members say the debate has been one of the most emotional in recent memory.
“A couple of people got really hot about it and that’s not real common,” Stewart said.
Chamber members said they did not believe support of the measure would cost them customers because of its broad support.
In fact, Valley business owners supporting the measure say it has caught fire among longtime residents unhappy with growing numbers of low-income families, many of them Latino, now living in the sprawling Los Angeles suburb that was once nearly all white and predominantly middle-class.
McCreary--who says his family moved to North Hollywood 107 years ago and was instrumental in its development--said support for the measure is largely economic.
He said many taxpayers fear paying increasingly larger shares of their income to support the families of illegal immigrants. He cited a report commissioned by the Clinton Administration and released this week estimating that California taxpayers pay $1.6 billion a year to educate and incarcerate illegal immigrants.
The report--written and researched by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank--estimates that the costs of serving illegal immigrants exceed what they pay in taxes and other revenues.
But the measure is about more than money, McCreary said.
“These people move in here, they aren’t being assimilated,” said McCreary, who is a property manager. “We’ve got to get a handle on it or else.”
That kind of talk is fueling a lot of support for the measure, said Scott Macdonald, spokesman for Taxpayers Against 187. “But 187 doesn’t solve the problem. It does nothing at the border,” he said.
The Woodland Hills Chamber of Commerce--the Valley’s largest with 1,000 members--agrees. They voted to oppose the measure, saying it would do little to reduce illegal immigration and, with restrictions on medical care, could make matter worse. Debate over support of the measure was also split, but both sides agreed it is a problem that government has been unable to fix.
For that reason, Woodland Hills attorney Gary Barr said he sees history repeating itself.
“Proposition 13 wasn’t the greatest of measures, but it tapped into feelings that government wasn’t willing to do anything about the property tax problem,” Barr said. “The reason there is such broad support is because people know there is a problem and they don’t believe government has done anything to solve it.”
Results of a statewide Times poll released earlier this week show that Proposition 187 is supported by virtually all groups, including Latino voters. Among all registered voters, the measure is favored 62% to 28%, an overwhelming margin.
Lois Klein, a member of the United Chambers of Commerce, said no one is even sure whether Proposition 187 is constitutional. A portion seeks to keep children who are in the country illegally from attending California schools. That would contradict a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that undocumented children are entitled to a public education.
Even so, said Klein, “It is something to shake the state up and, hopefully, force legislators to do something.”
The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to discuss support of the initiative next week.
* A GRIM PROSPECT: Students in state illegally react to Prop. 187. B13