Reaction Subdued on Prop. 187


In 1994, California's Proposition 187 had Ventura County Latino activists and high school students so worried that they took to the streets in demonstrations.

But nearly five years later, as the death knell sounded for the controversial measure passed by voters but never implemented, those same activists held no victory marches or celebrations.

Instead, they were almost blase Thursday about Gov. Gray Davis' decision this week to settle litigation over the measure and let nearly all of its provisions fall by the wayside.

"In a way, it's anticlimactic," said Dan Gonzalez, president of the 63-member Mexican-American Bar Assn. of Ventura County.

He and several other opponents of the measure, from educators to farm workers' advocates to health officials, said while they are glad Davis made his decision, they were no longer worried about Proposition 187. The measure would have ended most public benefits for illegal immigrants.

Their real vindication was last year's ruling by a federal judge, who called the measure unconstitutional. As a result, Davis' move to drop an appeal of that decision was received with little fanfare.

That isn't to say no one was emotional about the settlement.

Steve Frank, a Republican activist who led the Proposition 187 movement locally at the time, said Thursday Davis had undermined the political process.

"What do you tell the children when you have a governor that refuses to uphold the law?" he said.

Frank said Davis' move could hurt blacks and Latinos. By backing down, Davis ensured illegal immigrants will use up money and programs meant for the American poor, Frank said.

And by setting a precedent in which a governor can overturn the people's will, Frank said, Davis also could make it easier for future governors to take away minority protections that voters pass into law.

Frank said there are still plenty of Proposition 187 supporters in Ventura County, where the measure was passed by 65%--six percentage points higher than the statewide average.

"We need to go to the poor and say, 'This is how you've been harmed. The people who call themselves your friends are really your enemies,' " he said. "We will go to the churches, the community-based groups."

But Michael Rodriguez, director of community development for El Concilio, a Latino advocacy group whose clients include migrant workers, said the political climate is different now than in 1994.

"I think politicians have already seen the writing on the wall," he said. Because of a backlash against Proposition 187, he said, "We have more Latinos voting, more Latinos participating."

And Yolanda Benitez, superintendent of the mostly Latino Rio Elementary School District, said Latino voters are not very likely to vote for measures they believe would hurt illegal immigrants. The reason, she said, is that measures that turn society against illegal immigrants tend to turn society against all Latinos. In California, she said, "How can you tell an illegal alien apart from someone such as myself . . . a Mexicana?"

A Times exit poll in 1994 showed 23% of Latino voters supported Proposition 187.

Benitez and Ventura County schools Supt. Chuck Weis said the impact of Proposition 187 on public schools could have been expensive and wrong if schools had been forced to implement the measure. Under the measure, schools were supposed to investigate each child and turn the children of illegal immigrants away.

Education is "the only way to break the cycle of poverty," Weis said.

The county's public health officer, Robert Levin, said he doesn't expect the settlement to have a major impact on health programs. Still, he said, he hopes the settlement will mean that no one will be afraid to seek treatment.

U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) had agreed staunchly with the principles of Proposition 187 and even pushed for federal legislation mirroring the education provision of the state measure.

But on Thursday, he did not return a request for an interview. His chief of staff said the congressman had no position on the settlement.

"He doesn't get involved in state issues like that," Tom Pfeiffer said. "His role as a congressman is to work on federal issues."

While Gallegly may have muted his earlier stance, Latino advocates say they are fully expecting a fight to resurface.

"Even though it's dead now, without a doubt the forces who raised it . . . are trying to put another measure on the ballot for the next general election," Gonzalez said.

* MAIN STORY: New legal challenge is promised. A1

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