Some Foes of Prop. 187 Now Preach Compromise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo seems to be the last person who would budge in his opposition to Proposition 187.

Before the Los Angeles Democrat became a legislator, he helped orchestrate a 1994 march that drew 150,000 protesters against the initiative to restrict education and health care for illegal immigrants. After voters approved Proposition 187, Cedillo joined a legal challenge that resulted in a federal judge ruling most of the measure unconstitutional.

But now, with that ruling pending in a federal appeals court, Cedillo and several other Southern California Latino legislators who opposed Proposition 187 are preaching compromise. They support Gov. Gray Davis' decision to put the nearly five-year legal dispute over the law before a federal court mediator.

This new stance illustrates the seesaw of politics and principle engendered by the initiative that for many Latinos defined the changing landscape of California during the 1990s.

It also speaks to the varying attitudes toward legal and illegal immigration among the state's diverse Latino electorate, a fifth of whom voted for Proposition 187.

"We all have different perspectives, based on where we're at and what our constituencies are," Cedillo said of the state's 24 Latino legislators.

Davis angered many Latino leaders when he announced last month that he would put the fate of Proposition 187 in the hands of a federal mediator. Former Gov. Pete Wilson had initiated the appeal of the trial court ruling gutting Proposition 187, and many presumed Davis would kill the law he vilified during his campaign.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was the first Latino official to break ranks with the Democratic governor over the decision. "This is a core issue of conscience," he said. "Proposition 187 is the center part of that mean-spirited politics."

But Cedillo's group, several of whom are from suburban districts, say more than principle is involved. There are practical and political considerations for siding with Davis and seeking resolution to the most talked-about initiative since the landmark property tax rollback, Proposition 13.

Perhaps there is something, the group says, that can be salvaged to satisfy voters who passed Proposition 187 by a 59% majority. With Davis--who opposed the initiative--in the role of proponent, they say there is little to lose in mediation.

Besides, said Cedillo, "Our point of view is that it isn't just a legal question anymore. It's a broader question of how we will all live together in California, how [immigrants] get integrated, and how we as a community can go forward."

A few Latino lawmakers are also mindful of how their views will resonate with constituents. In such middle-class regions as the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, some fear alienating non-Latino voters, as well as some Latinos.

Assemblyman Thomas Calderon (D-Montebello), who represents second- and third-generation Mexican Americans in Montebello, Norwalk and Pico Rivera, said his response to Proposition 187 has been tempered because of the thorny problems created by illegal immigration.

"We need to get real," Calderon said. "There will always be an influx from Mexico, so let's deal with it."

Henry Valdez is one of the Latinos who voted for Proposition 187. The second-generation Mexican American and registered Republican from the San Fernando Valley wants Davis to pursue Wilson's appeal of the initiative.

"We should let the courts sort out the questionable language," said Valdez. He opposes the denial of health and education benefits to illegal immigrants but supports some aspects of the law.

As the Latino community grows, Valdez said, it must discard its sentimental view of illegal immigration, understanding that there are not enough resources for those entitled to live here.

Tirso del Junco, a Cuban American and Proposition 187 supporter, agrees. "How else are we going to provide legal immigrants, the ones who stood in line and waited for years to come to the United States, a bigger piece of the pie? We don't have enough resources."

Opponents Have Little to Lose

The governor's office is tight-lipped about what it hopes to negotiate. But anti-187 forces appear to have little to lose.

Four of the law's components were found unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer in a 1997 ruling, largely because they are covered by federal law or previous Supreme Court rulings. They include restrictions on public education, health care and welfare benefits, as well as requiring that teachers and police report suspected illegal immigrants.

Pfaelzer ruled as acceptable the remaining provision, which makes the manufacture or use of false citizenship documents a state felony. Because Pfaelzer will have the final say in any settlement under federal mediation rules, the two sides will probably use her ruling as a guide.

Peter A. Schey, one of the lead attorneys in the fight against Proposition 187, said he does not oppose the felony document provision, which is already being enforced.

"It would likely be that we could live with that in return for ensuring that over 100,000 children will not be expelled from public school," said Schey, who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens and about 20 other parties in one of five federal suits filed against Proposition 187.

But other attorneys fighting Proposition 187 disagree with mediation, siding with Bustamante and other state legislators, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Senate Majority Leader Richard G. Polanco, both Los Angeles Democrats.

Complicating matters, any of the lawyers can kill the deal under federal mediation rules. If that happens, Davis would be faced again with the question of whether to pursue the Wilson appeal.

Thomas Saenz, lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said MALDEF is fighting all of Proposition 187, including the penalties for false documents.

"I don't think anybody is ready to compromise federal supremacy on immigration regulations," Saenz said, adding, however, that he is willing to hear out the state's attorneys.

For its part, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation doubts its wishes will be considered during mediation. The foundation sought unsuccessfully to be included as a defender of Proposition 187 in court.

"Either the law is constitutional or it isn't," said foundation attorney Steve McCutcheon, who favors an appeal of Pfaelzer's ruling. "That needs to be determined by the court. . . . Anything short of that is nothing less than a back-room deal, out of public sight, to amend the initiative."

Meanwhile, most Latino legislators say there is no reason to negotiate on Proposition 187--now that Democrats control Sacramento.

Mediation, said Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), is "political dancing . . . where you don't want to offend this group or that group."

Of the governor, Romero said, "A courageous leader would take a stand and say: 'This is wrong.' "

Legislative sources said Davis mistakenly believed he had the support of Latino state legislators when he announced his mediation strategy on April 15. Davis had talked about the idea with Cedillo and a few other Democrats days earlier, sources said.

But Davis did not consult Bustamante and several other key Latinos, including Polanco and Villaraigosa.

"We need to close the chapter on culture wars by dropping the appeal now," Villaraigosa said. "I would hope at the end of it, he would drop the appeal."

Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante--no relation to the lieutenant governor--would say only that, in time, "more and more people will see the wisdom of the governor's decision." Davis said he chose mediation because he could not refuse under the state Constitution to enforce a law without an appellate decision, an interpretation others dispute.

Davis has not said what he plans to do if mediation fails.

Cedillo, who represents the heavily immigrant neighborhoods of Pico Union, Koreatown and Chinatown, said mediation is smart politics.

The former union manager said, "Negotiation is always preferable to litigation. The knee-jerk reaction is to say: 'Drop it now.' But the resolution of this is much more complex."

Juan Jose Gutierrez, head of the One-Stop Immigration and Education Centers, agrees, saying that dropping Proposition 187 without mediation could stir a backlash.

"What people must understand is that we need to broaden our vision and look at the bigger question" of how to avoid racial scapegoating the next time California faces economic hardship, Gutierrez said.

Others counseled faith in the governor while he walks what has turned out to be a political tightrope.

"I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt," said state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente). She praises Davis for visiting Mexico and eliminating Wilson administration policies against immigrants.

"He knows he's not bound by [mediation]," she said. "There will be some very good legal minds at the table working in the best interest of our community. I've got to believe that."

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The Green Party was born in the 1970s, taking root in Germany and eventually spreading to Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and 72 other countries.

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