The Proposition 187 activists had gathered on the Glendale courthouse steps to publicize a familiar goal: denying public education to illegal immigrants. But as the news cameras began to roll, one of their leaders wanted to talk about something else: the Clinton Administration’s proposed $40-billion aid package to Mexico.
“This is a shotgun marriage of the Mexican and U.S. economies, and that baby ain’t ours,” declared Glenn Spencer, founder of the Voice of Citizens Together, a San Fernando Valley-based group that was a principal grass-roots backer of Proposition 187. “It boils down to this: Do we want to retain control of the Southwest more than the Mexicans want to take it from us?” asked Spencer, who compared the conflict to the war between U.S. forces and the Viet Cong. “It’s a struggle between two groups of people for territory.”
Flush with victory in their crusade against illegal immigration, Proposition 187 proponents and their allies are lobbing new grenades into the public policy arena, expanding links with other groups and diversifying their political agenda and base. Simultaneously, they are working hard to beat back legal challenges that have left much of the ballot measure--which would deny most publicly funded services to illegal immigrants--bottled up in court.
Since the November election, pro-187 activists have provided technical and moral assistance to kindred movements in Florida, Arizona and Washington, among other states. But perhaps more significantly, they have championed a host of new national and regional issues, some of which have little to do with immigration.
They have lauded a proposed California ballot initiative abolishing affirmative action, pledged to expose widespread voter fraud by illegal immigrants and denounced Clinton’s blueprint for aid to Mexico. Meantime, Proposition 187 proponents are seeking candidates for school, state and federal offices whose views align with theirs on a variety of concerns.
One Proposition 187 offshoot group is fighting for sweeping constitutional change. The so-called “Refounding Amendment” would, among other things, abolish the federal government and its taxing authority, drastically alter the judicial system, restrict citizenship largely to those “born of an American,” change the nation’s official name to “America” and strip foreign nationals of most rights.
“If we don’t get this done in two years or so, we figure we’ve lost America as a sovereign country,” said Bette Hammond, proponent of the constitutional amendment plan. Hammond heads S.T.O.P.I.T. (Stop The Out-of-control Problems of Immigration Today), a Marin County-based group that was an early and key organizer on behalf of Proposition 187. “We’ve got to take back our country.”
Although the constitutional amendment seems far-fetched--even Spencer has reservations--the battle to get Proposition 187 on the ballot demonstrated the grass-roots activists are not to be taken lightly. Spencer and other principal proposition backers have emerged as folk heroes in some circles, publicly expressing a frustration felt by many white suburbanites and others.
Experts cautioned that movements grouped around single issues such as immigration often lose their punch when proponents attempt to expand into other arenas.
“Political power in one area is not necessarily transferable to another,” said H. Eric Schockman, professor of political science at USC. “It’s very difficult to unite disparate issues when people have different agendas. . . . A lot of politics is politics of the moment.”
Nonetheless, the Federation for American Immigration Reform--the influential, Washington-based pressure group that seeks reductions in new entries--is eager to bask in the Proposition 187 aura. FAIR leaders, reluctant a year ago about signing on to what many considered a quixotic effort, pointedly invited the initiative’s primary backers and their allies from other states to a Los Angeles conference this weekend.
One area drawing many newly empowered 187 activists is affirmative action, a battleground that promises to be even more rancorous than the incendiary immigration measure itself.
The so-called “California civil rights initiative,” which proponents hope to place on the ballot next year, would outlaw affirmative action. Although the initiative is the brainchild of two northern California academics and evolved independently from Proposition 187, the proposal has resonated strongly in the grass-roots immigration movement and drawn public support from several key Proposition 187 leaders, including Spencer and Ron Prince, chairman of the “save our state” campaign that devised the immigration initiative.
Immigration activists cite a common complaint: Affirmative action, ostensibly designed to help African Americans, has wrongly been utilized by many others--including illegal immigrants.
“We see Hispanics getting an inordinate allocation of jobs, because their ranks are swelled by illegal immigrants,” said Spencer. “If you subtract the illegal alien work force from the equation, blacks would end up with more jobs than they have today.”
The Nov. 8 election showed that Proposition 187, while particularly attractive to suburban, non-Latino whites, struck a strong populist chord among many groups. According to exit polls, those voting for the initiative in large numbers included women, African Americans, Asian Americans and even some Latinos--groups that have benefited from affirmative action.
Although some have predicted that the affirmative action question could split this broad base, Ezola Foster, a pro-187 activist who founded a group called Black Americans for Family Values, sees no conflict. Opposed to “hyphenated Americans,” Foster favors abolishing racial and gender preferences.
“Affirmative action is detrimental to the welfare of black Americans,” said Foster, a longtime Los Angeles-area schoolteacher. “It stigmatizes us and it stereotypes us. It has been a total failure.”
The architects of the affirmative action proposal say their measure is distinct from Proposition 187. But they do see some common concerns.
“What you see out there is people in California, and throughout the country, who are unhappy with the way government is working,” said Glynn Custred, a Cal State Hayward professor of anthropology and a co-author of the “California civil rights initiative.” Custred, who speaks Spanish and has worked in Latin America, professed no opinion on Proposition 187, but bemoaned the divisions it has caused.
“One of the problems with 187 is that it created a tremendous amount of animosity,” said Custred, who said he planned to speak to Latino groups about his proposal in an effort to allay fears. “We want everyone on board who supports us,” Custred said, “but we don’t have anything to do with Proposition 187.”
Also lining up behind the affirmative action initiative are many supporters of Ross Perot’s United We Stand America movement, which tapped into middle-class discontent two years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, United We Stand activists were among the leading organizers on behalf of Proposition 187, a link that many Perot activists are working to strengthen.
Last week, Prince and Spencer were invited to address a United We Stand session in the San Fernando Valley.
Perot did not take a public stand on Proposition 187, but he was a principal opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Texas financier also objects to the Clinton Administration plan to provide $40 billion in loan guarantees to Mexico, a proposal that has already provoked outrage in a Proposition 187 network increasingly linked by newsletters, faxes, computers and telephone contact.
“It’s bad enough that we do everything for their citizens when they come here illegally and break our laws,” said Hammond of S.T.O.P.I.T. “Now they want us to bail out their economy?”
Before any financial assistance is rendered to Mexico, Harold W. Ezell, the outspoken former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner who was a co-author of Proposition 187, would like to see the Mexican government pledge to stop would-be illegal immigrants at the border.
Ezell, long associated with immigration, also has a new issue: voter fraud, allegedly committed by illegal immigrants and others. He has vowed to fight for state and federal legislation to make it more difficult for non-citizens and other ineligible residents to vote.
At a local level, Proposition 187 backers already have launched recall drives targeting two officials: Mark Slavkin, president of the Los Angeles school board, and Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey. Slavkin spearheaded a court challenge to Proposition 187 shortly after its passage. Critics say Dickey acted too leniently in sentencing two Latino youths convicted in a highly charged San Clemente murder case to the California Youth Authority instead of to prison.
“We are tired of being victims of these people,” said Barbara A. Coe, chairwoman of the Orange County-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, an umbrella group that was a key organizer on behalf of Proposition 187.
One of Proposition 187 activists’ key aims is to help field like-minded candidates for local, state and federal office. “Our power is as voters in Southern California, not as big-money lobbyists,” said Spencer.
Even opponents acknowledge that Proposition 187’s sweeping victory in November contributed mightily to raising the immigration debate to a level not seen since early in the century.
In fact, President Clinton’s public declarations this week were the first time in memory that a chief executive had invoked the immigration issue during a State of the Union address.
“Politicians run scared when they think an issue is percolating in the body politic, so that gives the 187 crowd some national significance,” said Rick Swartz, a Washington strategist active on immigration issues who represents groups opposed to the California initiative.
That message is not lost on leaders of FAIR, who insist that the moment is ripe to enact their long-time agenda: strict controls on illegal immigration and, more provocatively, a moratorium on legal immigration and refugee entries--now at a combined level rivaling those of the early 20th Century.
“I see Proposition 187 as a natural consequence of not dealing with the problem a long time ago,” John Tanton, FAIR’s controversial founding chairman, said in an interview this week.
Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist and beekeeper whose interest in immigration grew out of his involvement in the population and environmental movement, addressed a meeting Thursday of Voice of Citizens Together, the Sherman Oaks-based activist group. The founder of U.S. English, which sponsored ballot initiatives and legislation that eventually made English the official language in 19 states (including California), Tanton was forced to step down in 1988 after publication of a memo in which he warned of the “Latin onslaught” and Latinos’ procreative habits.
FAIR’s emphasis on reducing legal immigration would seem to clash with the stated goals of Proposition 187 backers, including Gov. Pete Wilson, who have long lauded legal immigration while assailing illicit arrivals.
“My guess is that FAIR wants to take advantage of the energy of 187 proponents, and try to get them to buy into their agenda, which is to attack legal immigration,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which lobbies on behalf of immigrants. “It will be interesting to see how far the 187 people go in embracing FAIR’s extreme restrictionist views.”