Immigrants Under Attack

California Measure Would Deny Schooling, Healthcare

By Felix De La Torre

Illustrator: Kathy Sloane

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is a besieged state. One would only have to ask California’s governor, Pete Wilson, to confirm this.

Wilson will tell you that California’s problems have little to do with the recent recession, five years of drought, two major urban fires, riots, earthquakes, or the massive downsizing of the state’s defense industry. No, these are minor when compared to the real villain: the illegal immigrant.

According to Governor Wilson and other anti-immigrant advocates, relief comes in the form of Proposition 187, an initiative on California’s November ballot. If approved by voters, Proposition 187 would deny public education, social services, and non-emergency health care to undocumented immigrants. It would also require a variety of public agencies, including public schools, to check the legal status of students, parents, guardians, clients, and patients. Law enforcement agencies would have to verify the immigration status of anyone arrested, along with witnesses and victims. All involved agencies would be required to report “suspected” undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Proposition 187 is co-authored by Alan Nelson and Harold Ezell, former top INS officials in the Reagan administration. Called the “Save Our State” initiative, it is premised on the notion that public benefits are drawing undocumented immigrants to the state and, in tight budget times, the state can’t afford it.

The initiative follows several years of anti-immigrant scapegoating. In 1992, Governor Wilson was facing re-election, hobbled by the worst approval rating of any California governor since polling was established. He then began a relentless campaign that blamed undocumented immigrants for every misfortune afflicting the state. The polls reacted in his favor, and a trend was born. Anti-immigrant groups and other politicians, both Democratic and Republican, quickly took advantage of the mood, and the rhetoric turned nasty.

“These illegal alien children cause violence in our schools … they shoot, they beat, they stab and they spread drugs around,” charged Barbara Coe, a secretary and anti-immigrant advocate. Coe made the remarks during testimony before a legislative committee in support of a bill that would have barred undocumented immigrant children from attending public schools. The bill was defeated, but the fight was far from over. Anti-immigrant forces turned to California’s initiative system. The California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), an 18-member organization, collected 436,706 signatures to put Proposition 187 on the ballot.

While the initiative is sponsored by CCIR and supported by other groups from around the state, it is mostly funded by the California Republican Party, Republican politicians, and individual contributions.

One major supporter is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). One of the major funders of FAIR is the New York-based Pioneer Fund, founded in 1937 for the purpose of research into “racial betterment.” Others funded by the Pioneer Fund include Dr. William B. Shockley, a leading proponent of the theory that whites are inherently more intelligent than African-Americans.

Proposition 187 supporters claim that the measure is not racist. But opponents point to remarks made by organizers and supporters of the initiative. For example, Bob Simmons, an organizer for Proposition 187 from Marin County, says, “I like Mexicans, but they are uneducated peasants, and they come here for sex, dancing, and drugs. Then they get paid benefits.”

A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times showed that 60% of Californians support the initiative. A day after the poll was released, Governor Wilson officially announced his support for the initiative. This brought strong criticism from his gubernatorial rival, State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who produced a 1987 letter from then U.S. Senator Wilson to President Reagan complaining that the INS was making it too difficult for Mexican farm workers to enter the country to pick crops.

“A Lifetime of Hardship”

A number of groups are organizing against the initiative, including the California Teachers Association (CTA), the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the California Medical Association, and the National Education Association. These and other groups have formed a coalition, Taxpayers Against Proposition 187, to defeat the initiative. In many ways, the fight is reminiscent of the 1993 school voucher initiative that pitted the California Teachers Association against the California Republican Party (which officially backed the measure even though Governor Wilson did not) and right-wing conservatives.

Taxpayers Against Proposition 187 is using several nonpartisan reports to highlight the initiative’s policy and legal flaws. For example, the state’s Legislative Analysts Office has warned that because Proposition 187 violates federal privacy laws, the state could lose $15 billion in federal money. Richard Riley, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has indicated that Proposition 187’s violation of federal education law will jeopardize $2.3 billion to elementary and secondary schools and $1.1 billion to higher education. Because the scope of these flaws is so significant, some analysts are calling Proposition 187 the “most poorly crafted measure ever to reach the California ballot.”

According to the California Senate Office of Research, “the initiative is filled with provisions that collide with state and federal laws, state and U.S. Constitutional protection, and with state and federal court rulings.”

One such ruling involved a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plylerv. Doe. The ruling found a Texas law that prohibited undocumented immigrant children from attending public schools to be unlawful because it violated the students’ equal protection rights under the constitution. The Supreme Court stated that withholding education has been likened to “penalizing these children for their presence within the United States.” It went on to note: “Denying education to undocumented children imposes a life-time of hardship on a discrete class of children. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

While acknowledging Plyleris a major hurdle, Proposition 187 co-author Nelson and other initiative supporters claim that the referendum, if successful, will force the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the Plyler decision. Nelson is confident that the U.S. Supreme Court, given the influx of more conservative members in the last 12 years, will overturn its 1982 ruling.

The California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association are particularly incensed by provisions that school districts must verify the immigration status of every student, parent, and legal guardian. If a school official has “reasonable suspicion” that a student, parent, or guardian is illegally in this country, the school official is required to turn that person’s name over to the INS. To assist with this verification process, Nelson envisions an immense computer network linking schools, social service agencies, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies to the INS and the State Attorney General.

“The proposition does not define the basis of such suspicion, which opens the door to judging a child by the way they speak, the shade of their skin, or the sound of their last names,” notes Sherry Loofbourrow, president of the California School Boards Association.

If Proposition 187 is implemented, an estimated 400,000 children will be denied access to public schools, according to the California Department of Education. The number is based on both undocumented children and children who were born in this country but whose parents are undocumented. (Children born in the United States are automatically citizens.) The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national advocacy group, is afraid that many children, even if they have legal status, will stop going to school if their parents are undocumented, for fear of getting their parents in trouble.

While admitting that the educational requirements of Proposition 187 are harsh, proponents argue that it is necessary to curb illegal immigration. Patrick Skain, coordinator for the Bay Area Coalition for Immigration Reform, a pro-187 coalition, argues that “parents are going to have to make tough decisions, and those illegal alien parents with children who are U.S. citizens would have to decide whether to take their children back with them or leave them here.”

Opponents say this assumption would be laughable if it were not so serious. They are quick to point out the many studies that have shown that undocumented immigrants come to the United Sates looking for jobs, primarily in agriculture, and not for social services. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, undocumented immigrants account for the majority of the 1.1 million farm workers employed every year in California’s $18 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

Because most undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. for jobs, the California Parent and Teachers Association argues that Proposition 187 would not prompt them to return to their country of origin. One of the proposition’s most likely results would instead be to place 400,000 unsupervised children on the streets.

“Those of us at PTA are especially concerned with the impact 187 would have on our schools,” said Harriet Borson, director of legislation for the California PTA. “It would kick kids without proper documentation onto the streets.”

This view is shared by many of California’s law enforcement agencies. The idea that hundreds of thousands of unsupervised children will have nothing to do except roam the streets has become a frightening thought. As a result, police chiefs from Los Angeles, San Jose, and Sacramento have come out in opposition to Proposition 187, with others expected to follow.

Opponents are fairly confident that Proposition 187, even if approved, could never be implemented because of its numerous legal flaws. At the same time, they fear that the anti-immigration sentiment behind the proposition will spread to other states.

As syndicated columnist Tom Elias wrote: “Even if it doesn’t ever have any legal effect, the measure’s mere presence is already contributing to the ethnic resentments that plague the state and making its politics meaner than they’ve been since the days when Nisei citizens [first generation, U.S.-born Japanese] were persecuted during World War II.”

Felix De La Torre is a California policy analyst with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.