Prop. 187 Is Still Casting a Shadow

He's been called a bigot, a shameless opportunist and the living symbol of racial politics in California.

"I'm the Proposition 187 ogre," former Gov. Pete Wilson acknowledges in his downtown Los Angeles office. But his body language is dismissive and his tone defensive.

Sometimes, he admits, he wants to say, "I told you so."

They did keep coming.

We're on the 45th floor of a skyscraper in a region with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, and through the window there is nothing but endless sprawl to the east and south.

For months, I knew I would one day knock on Wilson's door. I couldn't spend the better part of the year exploring the insanity of U.S. immigration policy, as well as California's utter failure in planning for future growth, without making this pilgrimage to the high altar of hot-potato politics.

What an irony, I tell the former governor, that he might be more responsible than anyone for unchecked immigration. The subject became radioactive after the infamous 1994 TV ad for Prop. 187, with the unforgettable line -- They keep coming.

We have gone 10 years with our lips sealed, courtesy of Mr. Wilson.

"Oh, come on now," Wilson protests. "You can't blame me for that. You can't blame me for the cowardice of other public officials."

Sure I can. Some of Wilson's own GOP pals scorned him for backing the race-baiting campaign in support of Prop. 187, which would have denied public services to illegals. The proposition was approved by voters in 1994, but eventually thrown out by the courts.

The granddaddy of California's GOP gurus, Stu Spencer, declared years ago that the 187 campaign -- which made everyone with brown skin a suspected criminal -- drove Latinos further out of the reach of the Republican Party. And not just in California, either, but across the country.

Wilson bristles at Spencer's criticism.

"I've chewed [him] out about it, too, because I think he's wrong, and I'll tell you why," Wilson says. "I have said, 'Stu, you are a cynical partisan. You're putting party success above principle, and the principle is, No. 1, if we're going to have immigration laws ... then enforce them.' "

Wilson is right about that. He is right, too, when he says the federal government was and is derelict. It should either crack down on illegal immigration, or it should reimburse states for the actual cost of educating, hospitalizing and incarcerating illegals.

The former governor is still on solid ground when he tells me there ought to be a guest worker program for immigrants, so they're not risking their lives crossing the border and handing their life savings over to smugglers.

"The worst thing from their standpoint is to come here illegally. Then they are clearly second-class citizens, subject to real exploitation by unscrupulous employers," Wilson says. "They shouldn't have to be skulking in the shadows. They're here to do honest work."

But Wilson starts coming unraveled when he realizes he'll never escape Prop. 187. It isn't fun being called a racist, he tells me.

"I challenge you to find one word, one sentence, one phrase in any speech, in any ad, anything," that was racist, Wilson says, offering one of several such challenges.

He knows what's in his heart, and so he's moved on, he insists.

But he hasn't.

For Wilson, it will always be 1994.

If he had it to do over again, he assures me, he'd stand behind the infamous TV ad.

"Yeah, I would, because what it said was 'They just keep coming,' and that was simply a statement of fact," Wilson says, denying that there was anything sinister or racially provocative about the actual footage of Mexicans crossing the border.

"Did it show people crossing from Mexico? Come on, where the hell did they think they were crossing from? South Carolina?"

Wilson reminds me that 187 got 60% ayes. But part of the cost was a 75% nay from Latinos, many of whom were on board until "They keep coming."

He still can't understand there was no need to vilify border jumpers, and make suspects of every Latino in California, to pry more money out of Washington.

And if Wilson really wanted to get at the heart of the matter, he would have picked a different character to play the sinister law-breaker in the TV ad. It should have been dark and grainy footage of a businessman hiring an illegal immigrant at the back door.

They keep hiring.

But that might have ruffled the feathers of a business community that was always there for Wilson, and could never get enough cheap labor.

Ironically, you can no longer say, "They keep coming" in California. It's more like:

They keep leaving.

Though California's population is still expected to balloon by millions in coming decades, illegal immigrants -- in growing percentages -- are settling in states other than California.

Why? Perhaps because the Golden State job market is saturated, and the cost of living is sky high.

Wilson thinks this shift will finally prompt Congress to address the nation's hypocritical immigration policy (we'll chase you to your death at the border, then sign the whole family up for benefits if you make it in alive). It will happen, he says, when other states suffer the burden of unchecked illegal immigration, as California has.

If so, the former governor will have provided a valuable lesson, even if the essence of it still escapes him.

Steve Lopez will be on vacation this week and next. His column resumes Oct. 20.

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