Anger, Elation Greet Ruling on Immigration


Reaction to the federal court decision overturning important provisions of Proposition 187 ranged from anger to elation Monday, with proponents of the controversial anti-immigration measure generally expressing dismay at the ruling and opponents generally voicing approval.

U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer has “given a turkey decision for Thanksgiving to the 5 million Californians who said ‘Yes on 187,’ ” said Harold Ezell, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s western region.

But while the measure “may have been given a blow to the body, it sure hasn’t been a fatal blow, because we have had a major impact on the national debate on immigration,” said Ezell, one of the chief sponsors of the initiative. “It has caused the House and the Senate to take a serious look at reforming legal and illegal immigration.”

Gov. Pete Wilson, speaking at a fund-raiser Monday night in Beverly Hills for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), said that although Pfaelzer’s decision was “exactly the kind of thing we hoped would not occur,” the immigration problem “now rests where it should--squarely on the shoulders of Congress.”


Wilson said he is confident that, ultimately, “the will of California voters,” who voted to approve Proposition 187 in 1994, will be upheld.

On the other hand, Mike Hernandez, a Los Angeles city councilman and vocal critic of the measure, said Pfaelzer was right in striking down portions of the proposition. He said her ruling “sends a message to the Latino community that the Constitution of the United States has been salvaged.”

“Proposition 187 has been a sad chapter in this state’s history,” the councilman said. “We don’t need that kind of discrimination here.”

Attorney Peter A. Schey--whose immigration rights firm filed one of the lawsuits upon which Pfaelzer ruled--called her decision historic.

“This will allow thousands of immigrants to sleep better at night,” said Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Laws.

Gloria Molina, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said she was “very happy” with the decision and believes “it is very clear that immigration . . . needs to be resolved at the federal level.”

Among those supporting the measure, Ira Mehlman, California media director for the Federation for American Immigrant Reform--which calls for enforcement of Proposition 187--termed Pfaelzer’s ruling “outrageous.”

Mehlman accused Pfaelzer of deciding that California taxpayers “have no right to determine how their tax dollars are spent.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, said Pfaelzer’s decision was another example of the “legacy of liberal judges” who want to make law rather than interpret it. “Taxpayers basically got screwed” by the decision, which “gives the lawbreakers a blank check,” Antonovich said.

Both opponents and proponents of Pfaelzer’s decision acknowledged that it will be reviewed by higher courts--and probably decided ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court. While Ron Prince, co-chairman of the Proposition 187 campaign, predicted that Pfaelzer will be overturned, Schey expressed confidence that her ruling will be upheld.

“It is a well reasoned and lengthy decision,” he said.

Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, which filed another of the suits upon which Pfaelzer ruled, called Monday’s opinion “a complete and total victory . . . that keeps education, health care and social services available to all Californians.”

Rosenbaum, who made his remarks during a news conference at the Los Angeles offices of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Proposition 187 is “the wrong answer to the wrong question.”

“We went to court to establish a simple proposition: That all people without borders be treated with decency and respect,” he said. Rosenbaum said Monday’s ruling, in effect, “means everyone in California retains the same rights today that they did yesterday, and they will continue to have those rights. . . .

“The principle at stake in this case is what can the state do? Can it set up its own immigration system? The judge ruled that the law remains today what it has always been: The decision of who belongs here belongs in the federal arena. . . . It’s like if we don’t like postal service in California, we can’t set up our own.”

The reaction in the political arena tended to follow party lines, with Republicans--many of whom campaigned in 1994 on a platform that included support for Proposition 187--tending to oppose Pfaelzer’s ruling, while most Democrats argued in favor of it.

“I really resent the all-knowing and all-wise federal government telling the Republic of California what it can and can’t do,” said Assemblyman Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. (R-Paso Robles). “We should be in charge of our own destiny.”

Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove) said that while he is disappointed in the ruling, he believes that the ongoing dispute over the measure ultimately will force federal officials to “take this [immigration] problem seriously and guard our borders.”

“From the beginning, Proposition 187 was designed to be a wake-up call for the Feds,” Bowler said. “Ultimately, I think it will serve its purpose.”

In Orange County, where Proposition 187 claims its birth, creators of the initiative said they were not surprised by the ruling.

“When we initiated this effort, we certainly anticipated an incredibly strong opposition to it,” said Barbara Coe, who along with Prince co-chaired the Proposition 187 campaign. “We have absolutely no problem with [the ruling]. . . . Let’s go to the next step.

“We will prevail once the facts are revealed,” Coe said. “We feel that the [U.S.] Supreme Court will rule in favor of American citizens who are here--not for our American tax dollars but to commit their loyalty to the United States of America and contribute to our system.”

In contrast, Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl of Santa Monica was among the Democrats who expressed confidence that Pfaelzer’s decision will prevail.

“It definitely guts 187 and I think 187 deserves to be gutted,” Kuehl said. “The people of California are not allowed to ride roughshod over the Constitution of the United States. . . .

“Judge Pfaelzer is correct on the basis for her ruling--the issue of immigration is a federal question, not a state question,” said Kuehl, an attorney. “We can ask the federal government to reimburse us. We can ask the federal government to enforce the borders. But we are not able to carve ourselves out of a union and say we will not do what the federal Constitution requires.”

Democratic Assemblyman Louis Caldera of Los Angeles said voters who cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 187 are not to be blamed, “but people who knew better than to promote 187 as the solution have a heavier burden. . . . “

“We don’t need these short sighted, quick-fix solutions,” Caldera said.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) said Proposition 187 is “largely a creation of Pete Wilson’s gubernatorial and presidential aspirations.”

“It tapped into people’s frustrations and anger,” Katz said. “He gave them a political fig leaf that turns out to be not much of a fig leaf after all. People will be more frustrated and more cynical.”

On a less political front, educators supported Pfaelzer’s ruling, especially the part that struck down the requirement that teachers turn in students suspected of being illegal immigrants.

“We weren’t going to do it anyway,” said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the union representing the 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“It’s wrong to assume that schools should take on the duties of the [Immigration and Naturalization Service],” said Rebecca Sargent, president-elect of the California School Boards Assn.

“I believe schools were being asked to do this terribly inhumane thing,” Sargent said. “It’s not our job.”

Health care providers applauded Pfaelzer’s decision.

In ruling that patients cannot be asked about their immigration status when seeking medical care, Pfaelzer knocked out a provision that most health care workers viewed as odious.

“We are here to provide medical care, not to act as agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” said Dr. Susan Fleischman, director of medical services at the nonprofit Venice Family Clinic. “The idea of denying medical care on the basis of a person’s immigration status is abhorrent to us.”

Times staff writers Dan Morain and Jenifer Warren in Sacramento, Gebe Martinez in Washington, Lily Dizon in Orange County and Miles Corwin, Lorenza Munoz, Antonio Olivo, Amy Pyle, Bob Sipchen and Douglas P. Shuit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.