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Kemp, Bennett and INS Chief Decry Prop. 187 : Campaign: Statements by GOP leaders, Clinton Administration official broaden opposition on two fronts.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Opening new fronts in the debate over Proposition 187, a ranking Clinton Administration official and two leading national conservatives Tuesday condemned the California ballot measure, which is aimed at cutting off public services to illegal immigrants.

Former Republican Cabinet secretaries Jack F. Kemp and William J. Bennett said in interviews that they will issue a statement today denouncing Proposition 187 as unconstitutional, contrary to conservative principles and likely to encourage discrimination against ethnic minorities.

“For some, immigrants have become a popular political and social scapegoat,” the two men will say, according to a copy of the document provided to The Times. “But concerns about illegal immigration should not give rise to a series of fundamentally flawed, constitutionally questionable ‘solutions’ which are not consonant with our history.”

Meanwhile, in a Tuesday appearance in Los Angeles, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner offered the strongest condemnation of the ballot measure to date from a Clinton Administration official. She maintained that Proposition 187 is based on a faulty premise: that social welfare benefits act as a magnet for illegal immigrants.

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“We do not believe that the proposition is an effective way of enforcing the law against illegal aliens,” she said at a news conference. “The incentives for illegal immigration are to work in the United States, not to sign up for welfare.”

Although the White House never has taken a formal position on the controversial measure, Meissner’s remarks amplified a steady drumbeat of opposition from leading Democrats and Clinton Administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. But the Kemp-Bennett statement marked the first significant opposition to the initiative from national Republican leaders.

The brusque rejection of Proposition 187 puts Kemp and Bennett directly at odds with Pete Wilson, California’s Republican governor, who has strongly supported the measure and made opposition to illegal immigration a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. But beyond its impact on California, the Kemp-Bennett statement brings into the open the discomfort quietly expressed over the last year by a number of conservative thinkers about the GOP’s hardening line against immigration.

Bennett served as education secretary under President Ronald Reagan and has emerged as a favorite of social conservatives, with his denunciations of illegitimate births and calls for cultural renewal. Kemp served as housing and urban development secretary under President George Bush and is considered a potential top-tier contender for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination. Both are now co-directors of the Washington-based think-tank, Empower America.

Joel Maliniak, a spokesman for the campaign against Proposition 187, said that the Kemp-Bennett statement demonstrates that opposition to the measure is broadening as its implications come into clearer focus. “This elevates it yet again to another level,” he said.

But Harold Ezell, former INS western states director who helped write the measure, said that he doubts the Kemp-Bennett statement will change many minds. “These two guys have been sucked in by the Democratic Party line,” he said. “Clinton must have written their press release.”

Kemp and Bennett acknowledged that they are uncertain whether their statement will erode the overwhelming support for the ballot measure among conservatives and Republicans. In a Times poll earlier this month, the measure was favored 59% to 33% among likely voters statewide. Support was most intense among self-described Republicans (75%) and conservatives (72%).

But the two former Cabinet members said that they consider it important to condemn the measure, if only to discourage the party from emphasizing anti-immigrant themes elsewhere in the country and in the 1996 presidential campaign. “I am concerned that, if this passes in California, it will be introduced in other states and people will want to put it in the 1996 platform,” said Kemp, who is traveling this week in California and will appear today at the Richard Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda. “It corrodes the soul of the party.”

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In their statement, Bennett and Kemp stressed that they oppose providing welfare benefits to illegal immigrants but noted that such benefits already are prohibited by law. In attempting to eliminate other public services for illegal immigrants, Bennett said, he and Kemp fear that the proposition will inspire a broader wave of “nativism” that could also produce a backlash against legal immigrants.

“Once a thing like this gets started, the kind of brushes that are going to be used tend to be way too broad,” Bennett said. “It is wrong in itself, but it is also going to label all immigrants, it is going to turn into a war of colors, a war of races. It’s bad stuff. It is poison in a democracy.” Bennett noted that earlier he had expressed support for the proposition. But he said that statement had been based on the mistaken assumption that it dealt solely with cutting off welfare benefits for illegal immigrants.

Most dramatically, the two men maintained, the measure’s requirements that schools and hospitals report people they believe to be in the country illegally could lead to both discrimination and an expansion of government authority that should be anathema to conservatives.

“Charging teachers and nurses with the duty of reporting people they suspect to be illegal immigrants is profoundly anti-conservative; it relies on a highly intrusive Big Brother approach,” Kemp and Bennett wrote.

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They added: “It is also a mandate for ethnic discrimination. Does anyone seriously doubt that Latino children named Rodriguez would be more likely to ‘appear’ to be illegal than Anglo children named, say, Jones?”

Ezell argued that Kemp and Bennett were exaggerating the measure’s impact because the reporting requirement does not apply to teachers. Rather, students would be required to prove their legality to school administrators when they sign up for classes, he said. Both sides, however, acknowledged that medical personnel would be required to check the citizenship status of those suspected of illegal status.

Beyond the concerns about discrimination, Kemp and Bennett said that the Republican Party risks alienating entrepreneurial, family-oriented immigrants who might otherwise be attracted to the party’s message. “The Republican Party helped to create a Democratic base in many of America’s cities with its hostile stand toward the last generation of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and the nations of Central Europe,” they write. “Can anyone calculate the political cost of again turning away immigrants, this time. . . . Asians, Hispanics and others?”

To deal with the illegal immigration problem, the two men write, government should instead focus on intensifying enforcement at the border, cracking down on fraudulent immigration documents and reforming the INS bureaucracy.

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Similarly, in her Los Angeles appearance, Meissner endorsed a two-pronged strategy to reduce illegal immigration, stressing enhanced border enforcement and stepped-up efforts to ensure that those here illegally do not find work. That plan is in line with proposals recently endorsed by the Commission on Immigration Reform, the bipartisan body that this month released its own sweeping report on the matter.

Stressing the need to target enforcement at the workplace, Meissner said that officials are currently seeking ways to improve verification of prospective workers’ immigration eligibility, probably involving some kind of link between INS and Social Security Administration databases. The Commission on Immigration Reform endorsed such a concept, which would allow employers to verify the eligibility of prospective workers, presumably via telephone hookups to the newly created database.

The White House plans to submit legislation to the next Congress on a range of immigration issues, Meissner said, and is likely to include some proposed means of improved employer verification.

But any such proposal is expected to be costly, cumbersome and meet fierce opposition. In their statement, for instance, Kemp and Bennett denounced both the national identification card and central database proposals in terms similar to their criticism of Proposition 187 as an unwise expansion of government power likely to foster discrimination.

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Later Tuesday in San Diego, Meissner expanded on her criticism of the measure, saying it would strain the already overburdened immigration service and other federal and state agencies.

Enforcement of Proposition 187 “would be very resource-demanding of the immigration service,” she said. “It would also create very severe demands on school resources, health provider resources and resources of social services institutions. It would cost money to enforce it not only at the federal level but at the state level.”

H. D. Palmer, a campaign spokesman for Wilson, called Meissner’s comments part of a “blatant pattern” by the Clinton Administration to use immigration issues to rescue the flagging gubernatorial campaign of Kathleen Brown, the Democratic nominee.

Brownstein reported from Washington and McDonnell from Los Angeles. Also contributing were Times staff writers Gebe Martinez in Los Angeles and Sebastian Rotella in San Diego.

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