Ruling on Prop. 187: Court Did What Had to Be Done : Illegal immigration is wrong--but only Washington can tackle it

While the decision will no doubt be unpopular with the many Californians who voted for Proposition 187 last year, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer made the right call in ruling that most elements of the initiative are unconstitutional. She put the responsibility for immigration reform where it always has rightly belonged--with the federal government.

States cannot assume the authority to regulate immigration, Pfaelzer concluded. That is a function of the federal government, according to both the Constitution and numerous judicial precedents.

The ruling threw out major portions of the initiative. It also saved California the cost of a long and expensive trial on the complex legal issues raised by the measure. However, the ruling wisely left in place a few sections on which there was almost universal agreement, notably tougher penalties against criminals who counterfeit identity documents and people who use them.

HEALTH AND SCHOOL ISSUES: Proposition 187 sought to deny basic health care to illegal immigrants regardless of the seriousness of their illnesses or the public danger involved. Pfaelzer ruled that the state cannot bar illegal immigrants from health care and social welfare services that are federally funded and to which they are entitled under federal law.


Another provision of 187 called for throwing out of school the children of illegal immigrants. Pfaelzer correctly pointed out that public education of even illegal immigrant children is specifically protected by a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler vs. Doe.

Regarding what is perhaps the most morally troublesome part of 187, Pfaelzer declared it unlawful to demand that teachers and administrators snitch on immigrant families. The provision required educators to question children on their parents’ immigration status and report the findings to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Even if the children had been born in the United States and thus were U.S. citizens with all the legal protections enjoyed by Americans, the teachers would have been required to deny them an education if their parents did not have legal status. It was easily the most shortsighted and mean-spirited provision in an initiative that even its supporters acknowledged was a hodgepodge.

Pfaelzer’s ruling in no way means the issue of illegal immigration and its impact on California has been resolved. The state attorney general’s office has already indicated it will appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the appellate court supports Pfaelzer, the state and citizen’s groups backing the proposition probably will appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This undoubtedly would delay enforcement of 187 for years.

VOTERS’ FRUSTRATION WAS REAL: It is easy to understand the frustration of voters who felt their lives had been adversely affected by the large number of immigrants in the state. Although immigrants have had a beneficial impact on some segments of the state’s economy, there have been costs too. No one can deny that already burdened and ill-equipped public schools are facing enormous difficulties in trying to educate children who do not speak English. Likewise, public health facilities such as the Los Angeles County clinics are experiencing great strain because of the influx of newcomers.

Californians who voted for 187 at least can take satisfaction from having sent a message to Washington. Even as the fate of Proposition 187 was being weighed by the court, Congress began to debate immigration reform once again. Both the House and Senate are considering legislation that could diminish the flow of illegal immigration to California and tighten the conditions even for legal immigration.

A CYCLICAL PROBLEM: Let’s face it: If Washington had reacted to the legitimate concerns of California, Texas, Florida and New York--the states that have had to absorb the majority of illegal immigrants--the reactionary Proposition 187 might never have taken flight. Capitol Hill is where the immigration debate should have occurred in the first place. Congress tried in 1986, but it failed to fully understand the cyclical nature of immigration. Economic opportunities in the Third World have continued to diminish, spurring an exodus from poor nations.

Now that Congress has taken up this difficult issue again, perhaps the tenor of the immigration debate in California will cool and reconciliation can begin. In putting the focus of the debate where it belongs, Pfaelzer’s thoughtful and courageous ruling has done California a huge favor.