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Prop. 187 Backers Elated--Challenges Imminent

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California voters approved the most sweeping and controversial attack on illegal immigration in the nation Tuesday by passing Proposition 187, a measure that spawned passionate demonstrations, became the dominant issue of the election and promises to continue polarizing the state.

With nearly half of the votes counted, the get-tough measure led by a substantial margin.

“I think this is a showing of a public attitude, that we as a public are not going to tolerate illegal immigration,” said the measure’s co-author, Alan C. Nelson, from his home in Sacramento.

Ron Prince, co-chairman of the pro-187 campaign committee, said the measure’s success would blossom into similar movements in Arizona, Texas and other states with a substantial illegal immigrant population.

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Elected officials “have to start doing their jobs,” said Prince at a Republican Party rally in Orange County, where the initiative had its roots. “We are letting them know with 187 that when they don’t, we will solve the problem.”

Most portions of the initiative, which would deny government funded non-emergency services to illegal immigrants, technically are scheduled to take effect immediately.

However, lawyers representing organizations including the California Medical Assn., Los Angeles Unified School District and ACLU of Southern California announced late Tuesday that they planned to file a flurry of lawsuits this morning seeking to halt implementation of the measure until state and federal courts can review its legality.

“We thought we could defeat this with the election and if we don’t do it that way, we’ll move into a different forum,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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In any case, the public education ban, which even sponsors of the measure say would require long-term litigation prior to implementation, is not scheduled to take effect until Jan. 1.

Los Angeles school officials late Tuesday urged students to show up to school as usual this morning.

“We expect them in school,” said school board President Mark Slavkin. “They can come to school assured that their immigration status will not be questioned in any way.”

As law enforcement officers remained on tactical alert to guard against potential trouble, workers from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles passed out leaflets in the Central City, urging immigrants to remain calm and continue their normal routines.

“Don’t panic. Regardless of your immigration status, you have rights. You have support and we will keep you informed,” the flyer read.

Capturing the seething mood of many Californians toward illegal immigration, Proposition 187 caught fire as the hottest issue in the state, one with bitter, divisive overtones bound to resonate far into the future.

To proponents, the ballot measure was a means to save billions of dollars in state tax dollars and send a message to Washington about the economic and social problems posed by the estimated 1.6 million illegal immigrants in California.

Opponents argued that Proposition 187 was a mean-spirited proposal that did nothing to strengthen border enforcement or prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants. The measure, detractors said, would foster a police state mentality, in which legal residents are questioned simply because of their accents or skin color.

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Championed by Gov. Pete Wilson, and eventually by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Huffington, Proposition 187 held a wide lead in pre-election polls as late as mid-October.

But the gap appeared to narrow considerably under a barrage of anti-187 statements from mainstream civic, educational, medical, labor and religious organizations. Also weighing in on the “no” side were leading political figures, ranging from President Clinton to former Republican Cabinet secretaries Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett.

In early October, the measure boasted an overwhelming 59%-33% lead among likely voters in a Times poll. But as voters increasingly concentrated on election issues, the margin slipped to 51% to 41% two weeks before Election Day.

Under terms of the proposition, one of the most controversial in state history, illegal immigrants will be barred from public schools and colleges. It also prohibits undocumented residents from receiving any of the limited publicly funded non-emergency health care and social service benefits that they have until now qualified for--including immunizations, prenatal and postnatal care for women, and foster services for abused children.

Proposition 187 also mandates that educational, social service, public health and law enforcement officials verify the residency status of students, patients and prisoners. Administrators would be required to turn in the names of those “suspected” of illegal status to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the state attorney general’s office.

The contentious debate about Proposition 187 unfolded against a backdrop of considerable voter discontent about the broad demographic changes--largely fueled by immigration--that have drastically altered California’s makeup since the 1980s.

Oft-voiced fears that California was under “invasion” spawned a loose network of community-based groups that banded together as the California Coalition for Immigration Reform. The Huntington Beach-based coalition became a co-sponsor and key organizing vehicle for the initiative the sponsors dubbed “save our state.” It was co-authored by Nelson and Harold W. Ezell, a pair of former high-ranking INS officials, and Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia).

Opponents disparaged the effort as ill-conceived and underfunded, and the press largely ignored its aggressive signature-gathering efforts. But the Republican Party and GOP legislators helped out considerably, pumping more than $100,000 into initial efforts. That enabled backers to hire a professional signature-gathering firm and put the initiative over the top with almost 600,000 signatures, securing a spot on the November ballot.

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Organized efforts to fight the measure were slow in forming.

In July, a coalition of statewide health, education, law enforcement and labor organizations hired a veteran Bay Area political consulting firm, Woodward & McDowell, to run the campaign. The group, Taxpayers Against 187, did not hold its first news conference until mid-August and did not go over the $1-million mark in campaign fund raising until a month before the vote.

The anti-187 campaign strategy, aimed primarily at white voters who make up the bulk of the state’s electorate, was the essence of pragmatism--acknowledging that illegal immigration was a major problem but maintaining that Proposition 187 would make a bad situation worse.

Initiative sponsors employed the political equivalent of football’s prevent defense: Let the “no” side chip away with its barrage of media events, radio ads and slew of anti-187 endorsements. But do not make any major gaffes and hope that the clock runs out--and the ballots are counted--before the lead changes hands.

Leaders of the pro-187 campaign made relatively few public appearances. Rather, backers relied largely on the get-out-the-vote efforts and TV ads of Wilson and the state Republican Party, the proposition’s leading advocates.

For politicians, Proposition 187 became the defining issue of state elections. Republican Senate hopeful Huffington joined Wilson on the “yes” side and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and gubernatorial challenger Kathleen Brown urged a “no” vote.

On a sunny Sunday in mid-October, an estimated 70,000 peaceful demonstrators marched from the Eastside to Downtown Los Angeles to condemn the initiative and Wilson. The protest was the largest Los Angeles has seen in decades, surpassing Vietnam War-era demonstrations. But in terms of the November vote, the march was seen as a mixed blessing--with proponents of Proposition 187 pouncing on the sea of Mexican flags waved by the crowd as evidence of un-Americanism.

Another wild card was an escalating series of mainly peaceful walkouts by high school and college students opposed to the initiative. Defying calls by campaign leaders and educators to stay in class, more than 10,000 youngsters left their campuses in Los Angeles and surrounding communities on the largest day of protest, less than a week before the election.


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