Releasing a year's worth of pent-up anger and fear over the possible consequences of Proposition 187, a panel of political, academic and trade-union leaders unleashed five hours of fiery rhetoric during an international conference here Saturday--accusing the measure's proponents of attempting to deny fundamental civil liberties to undocumented immigrants.
"America, you are . . . the cradle of democracy. Don't transform your cradle into a grave," said Ruben Zamora, a former presidential candidate in El Salvador.
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a former governor, senator and presidential candidate in Mexico, called the initiative a symptom of the "twisted" bond of dependency between his country and the United States.
"People have migrated from their places of origin not because they want to, but because they have to," he added. "Discrimination [is] an ideological tool to make cheap labor even cheaper and more docile by humiliating the person and his needs."
They and other panelists roused a crowd more than 400 at Cal State Northridge to its feet half a dozen times with demands that Californians examine the racial, economic and international causes of the state's anti-illegal-immigration movement.
The passion echoed the protests of last November's election season, when immigrants, schoolchildren and labor activists took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to oppose the ballot measure.
The state's voters overwhelmingly passed the measure, which would deny state services and educational benefits to undocumented immigrants. Since then, court injunctions have prevented it from taking effect. A federal judge will rule on its constitutionality later this month.
Supporters of Proposition 187 contend that illegal immigrants are draining scarce funds from public education and the social welfare system. As an example, proponents have said that if the 300,000 students in California's public schools who are believed to be illegal immigrants were excluded, the state would save up to $1.2 billion annually.
Poet and journalist Ruben Martinez, who moderated the discussion, said he believes that debate over Proposition 187 has subsided in the past year because, so far, it "is like a pebble in our shoes. . . . It hasn't devastated us yet."
But speakers shook that stillness for a few hours in what a CSUN official described as "a day of dialogue." In fact, however, participants were preaching to the choir, as no contrary voices were raised.
The conference started with an emotional appeal from CSUN junior Vladimir Cerna. The Salvadoran immigrant described his nine-year rise from the streets of East Los Angeles to the conference podium as a prize that might be denied undocumented immigrant youths today if 187 finally becomes law.
"Whatever it takes, we must attack this measure," Cerna said. "If we all stay quiet, we will be guilty of creating a permanent underclass that sees no way out."
While politicians such as Gov. Pete Wilson suggest that undocumented immigrants are a "drain" on the Southland's economy, the truth is that they "prop it up" with both their taxes and their sweat, said Occidental College economist Manuel Pastor Jr.
According to his analysis, 50% of the workers in Los Angeles' low-wage garment industry are Latino, and 25% of them are undocumented. "These low-wage workers keep higher-wage industries like textiles and trucking alive in Los Angeles," he said.
Pastor, the son of a Cuban immigrant, encouraged the city's immigrant workers to "organize, organize, organize" to raise their wages and lift their families out of the poverty that he said is the root of their demand for government social services.
Outside the conference, hallways were lined with tables laden with the literature of Communist groups that seemed a throwback to political rallies of the 1960s.
Joe Hicks, executive director of a group called the Multicultural Collaborative, worked the crowd like a Sunday-morning preacher, declaring that the political Establishment should not have allowed Proposition 187 to reach the ballot.
"We shouldn't let people vote on the human rights of other people," he said.
He blamed the resentment against undocumented workers on the "huge transfer of wealth" from the middle class to the rich in the 1980s, which resulted in breadwinners scrambling for second jobs, fearing for the solvency of their pensions and worrying about their ability to buy a home.
The most stirring analysis of the day, though, came from the lectern-thumping Salvadoran politician Ruben Zamora. A visiting professor at Stanford University this year, Zamora termed the conference topic "vital" to his nation, which has sent fully 20% of its population of 5 million to the United States to find work.
El Salvador's economy, he said, receives far more income from its immigrants than from its agricultural and industrial exports.
Zamora said that when he traveled through Salvadoran villages as a presidential candidate, more campesinos wanted to hear about Proposition 187 than about his plans for the national budget.
But Martinez, the moderator, had what amounted to the last word, saying that even if the federal court allows Proposition 187 to become law, fundamental demographic shifts will ultimately negate its importance.
"The majority of people in Los Angeles early in the next century will be Latino or Asian," he said. "Time is on our side."