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Clinton, Feinstein Declare Opposition to Prop. 187 : Immigration: President calls measure unconstitutional. Senator admits her stance could cost her the election.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the latest escalation of the debate surrounding Proposition 187, President Clinton and Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday publicly assailed the hotly contested California ballot initiative that would bar illegal immigrants from receiving many public services.

Clinton, responding at length to a question at a nationally televised White House news conference, said the ballot measure is an unconstitutional proposal that if implemented could cause increased crime and the spread of disease.

“If you turn the teacher and other educators into instruments of a sort of state police force, it’s like bringing a Big Brother into the schools,” Clinton said, alluding to the proposition mandate that schools verify the immigration status of students and their parents.

Feinstein, in a close race with Republican challenger Rep. Mike Huffington, also declared her opposition to the popular measure--a step that she acknowledged may well lead to her defeat.

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“I know that this could cost me votes, quite possibly even the election,” Feinstein said during a luncheon speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “But I simply do not believe it will work.”

The comments by Clinton and Feinstein dramatically illustrated how the once-obscure proposal--largely the brainchild of a group of Orange County-based activists and former Immigration and Naturalization Service officials--has leaped to the forefront of the national agenda, with less than three weeks before the November election.

The senator’s announcement came one day after Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) endorsed the measure and Feinstein accused Huffington of backing Proposition 187 because of its strong support among likely voters--especially Republicans.

“His endorsement is the politically expedient thing to do,” Feinstein said. “I read the polls and know that a majority of Californians support it. No way do I question the sincerity of working Californians, for I’m as fed up with the situation as they (are). But I believe Proposition 187 won’t solve the problem, it’ll only make it worse.”

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Huffington said he joined the pro-187 camp out of conviction.

“This is what the people of California want,” Huffington said when contacted Friday after his opponent’s statement. “I think Mrs. Feinstein is out of touch with what the people want. But it’s not just this issue, it’s her entire record in Washington that will cost her the election.”

Despite Proposition 187’s promi nent injection into the Senate race, some analysts said its significance on Nov. 8 is anything but certain.

“Right now my guess is that other issues and personalities will decide that race,” said Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist whose clients are primarily Republicans.

A Democratic consultant said the immigration debate--and voters’ apparent support for Proposition 187--would help Huffington and hurt Feinstein, though he added: “Maybe not enough to make a difference.”

Opponents of Proposition 187 lauded the anti-initiative statements from Clinton and Feinstein, the latest in a steady drumbeat of opposition to the measure from prominent Democrats as well as several Republicans.

“Californians are reading their voters’ pamphlets right now, and their decisions are being aided, we hope, by an incredible diversity of people in opposition to Proposition 187,” said Joel Maliniak, spokesman for Taxpayers Against 187, leading the anti-initiative campaign. “Support for Proposition 187 is eroding and collapsing,” Maliniak said.

But Harold W. Ezell, a Proposition 187 co-author, said the comments by Clinton and Feinstein would only boost voter support for the measure.

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“Our ratings are higher than theirs,” said Ezell, a former regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who contended that the campaign against the measure had now peaked.

“That’s their final salvo,” Ezell said of Clinton’s statement. “That’s their Scud missile.”

In explaining their opposition to the proposition, Clinton and Feinstein emphasized two oft-cited potential impacts: an increase in crime by those youngsters denied schooling and left on their own on the streets, and a spread of disease by immigrants who would be unable to obtain immunizations and other health care.

Feinstein also cited high implementation costs--more than $100 million, according to state estimates--and the prospective loss of about $15 billion in U.S. aid to California because of conflict with federal laws and regulations.

Both the President and the senator also said it was unwise to pursue a measure that was clearly unconstitutional, a reference to a 1982 Supreme Court decision barring states from denying public education to illegal immigrants.

“I don’t think as a matter of practice it’s a good thing to condition an election referendum, much less other elections in California, on a measure that even the supporters say is unconstitutional,” said Clinton, who was clearly well-versed in the debate surrounding the measure and was prepared to respond to the question.

Proposition 187 supporters, including Gov. Pete Wilson, argue that it is time for the Supreme Court to revisit the issue of providing public education to illegal immigrants. Initiative proponents predict that its passage will prompt many illegal immigrants to go home and dissuade others from coming, while forcing Washington to act to reduce the flow.

“This is a message initiative and we’re sending a message to Washington, to Sacramento: Enough’s enough,” said Robert R. Kiley, a Yorba Linda-based political consultant who is among Proposition 187’s founders.

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Clinton’s rejection of Proposition 187 culminates a series of remarks by Administration officials outlining their objections to the controversial ballot measure.

Clinton also took a thinly veiled swipe at Wilson by contending that previous “leadership decisions” in California had encouraged illicit immigration to spur economic growth during the state’s “good times.”

The President was apparently alluding to then-Sen. Wilson’s support of the Special Agricultural Worker provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which led to the legalization of more than 1 million formerly undocumented farm workers. Wilson has contended that although he voted for the final measure, he had sought much narrower provisions than the Democrat-controlled Congress approved.

Wilson, who has made immigration a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, blasted Clinton’s statements and accused the White House of acting belatedly and inadequately to bolster enforcement along the California-Mexico border in a pre-election bid to influence California voters. “The federal government has ignored the border,” Wilson said. “People are fed up. They know how unfair it is to get stuck with the costs of illegal immigration.”

Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers James Bornemeier in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles. McDonnell reported from Los Angeles and Lesher from San Francisco.

* RELATED STORIES: B2, B3.


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