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Golden State: Not for everyone

Published Oct. 8, 2005

The yellow road signs around these parts are a lot like those that warn motorists they might have to share the highway with bears, deer or some other animal.

But here, on the busy, eight-lane interstate north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the silhouettes on the CAUTION signs are of humans _ three illegal immigrants running hand in hand to freedom.

The signs are a reminder that 160 people _ apparently illegal aliens _ have died darting across these highways since the mid-1980s, and that thousands more eluded Border Patrol agents to go on to tend Californians' houses, watch their children and pick their crops.

And to use their taxpayer-provided services.

Fearing they've lost control of their state and its border with Mexico, California voters are turning to what is one of the most severe proposals in American politics today: an initiative to cut off public schools and health care to the state's 1.6-million illegal immigrants.

"This is a welfare state, the biggest in the U.S. People no longer come here to work hard and make a living. They come here for the social services," complained Don Haynsworth, a tanned, healthy-looking retired hardware store owner from San Diego.

"We've got to draw the line somewhere."

That's a message already being heard in California and across the country, as the Golden State readies itself to be the Trend-setting State again. With more illegal aliens than any state _ 1.6-million as compared to Florida's 322,000 _ what happens with Proposition 187 could set off a round of similar initiatives across the country, much the way California's Proposition 13 started a national tax-cutting fervor.

Known as the "Save our State" initiative, Proposition 187 would require teachers and other public employees to notify immigration officials of people they suspect to be illegal aliens. Holding false immigration documents would become a felony.

The measure leads in the polls, and has emerged as the dominant theme in two hard-fought races for U.S. Senate and governor. Everybody here is talking about it, from the Los Angeles schoolchildren who staged an anti-187 walkout Friday to a San Diego radio talk show host who says generous social services benefits in the U.S. "ring a dinner bell in the Third World."

California Gov. Pete Wilson rehabilitated his sagging re-election campaign by focusing on the twin issues of immigration and voters' fears of crime. "They keep coming," one of his early television ads said. He's even suggested that a national identification card may be in the offing to separate legal citizens from the illegal visitors.

On the other side, Democratic candidate for governor Kathleen Brown, President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and Sen. Dianne Feinstein all argue that the initiative won't stop Mexicans and other Latin Americans from sneaking across the border. Conservatives Jack Kemp and William Bennett are also opposed because the initiative invokes "Big Brother" government and fosters an "ugly antipathy toward all immigrants."

That there are diverging schools of thought should come as no surprise in this nation of struggling immigrants and their successful offspring, but the conflict is nowhere starker than in the richly divergent state of California. After all, as Mexican American activist Enrique Morones put it this week, "This WAS Mexico, and only under dubious circumstances we lost it."

California has often been of two minds about immigrants. Chinese helped to bring the railroad west, but then came an economic downturn and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and interned. Starting in the 1940s, the government encouraged Mexicans to come to the state to pick crops, and Wilson worked to protect the work force as a U.S. senator in the 1980s.

There are now 7.8-million Latinos in the state _ most of them legal _ and its likely Caucasians will become a minority in the nation's largest state within a decade. The color of California's rainbow includes a brown band, and everyone has a tale to tell about the changes the newcomers have wrought.

There's the retired schoolteacher from Colton, Cal., who saw the tight-knit community where she was born transform into a "Spanish-American town" run by a Hispanic mayor. There's the family planning worker from Los Angeles who saw Mexican women arriving at the hospital ready to give birth, so the new babies would have American citizenship and rights to benefits. There are the hundreds of well-off Californians _ including, it was revealed this week, GOP Senate candidate Mike Huffington _ who rely on illegal immigrants for domestic chores. There are the hundreds more of Mexicans and Americans who regularly cross the border to work, to shop at Kmart in San Ysidro or to bet on United States football games in Tijuana.

And there are the parents whose kids complain that only Spanish is spoken in school hallways and at the school proms. Some have pulled their kids out of public schools, including a Simi Valley woman who is herself the granddaughter of a "picture bride" sent here from China.

"I have a problem with the whole Spanish speaking in the schools," said Carolyn Yim, 37. "This is America. I speak English."

For all the intermingled heritages, and the stresses they bring, the ballot initiative known as Proposition 187 is aimed at illegal immigrants. There's no doubt that they are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

According to Wilson's office, California pays $3.2-billion to provide an array of services to illegal immigrants and their children. It pays at least $1.7-billion, Wilson says, to teach more than 300,000 illegal immigrant children in California public schools. Health costs are $369-million and two-thirds of babies born in Los Angeles public hospitals are born to illegal immigrants.

Like Gov. Lawton Chiles, who faces a similar budget strain from the flood of Cuban and Haitian immigrants to Florida, Wilson sued the federal government to collect reimbursement from the results of an immigration policy that allows the migrants to scoot across the borders unimpeded.

The similarities pretty much end there. The Clinton administration agreed to Chiles' demands to interdict boat people headed for Florida and worked out an agreement to ship out illegal aliens in state prisons. It has been at war, though, with Wilson _ a potential Republican candidate for president who is hammering away at the immigration issue in his 1994 re-election campaign.

"He's demagogued it. He's not been constructive at all," Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick told reporters in mid-October.

Some Democrats _ including Kathleen Brown, Wilson's opponent _ believe the immigrants are coming to the United States for work, not benefits. Rather than cut off benefits to people who are here, they want to control the border.

That's what the administration hopes to do. Congress has approved 1,300 new border patrol agents, part of a three-year stepped-up effort that includes night vision goggles and underground sensors near the fence line. Reno came to the state recently to announce the California slice of what's called "Operation Gatekeeper."

Agents along the arid border near San Ysidro _ the most southwestern point in the mainland United States _ said the new troops are arriving and the flow of immigrants is down, but the real test will come when the agriculture season begins early next year. One agent even went so far as to proclaim his support for Proposition 187, privately saying that he too wanted to send a message to the governments of Mexico and the United States that the flood must stop.

That certainly was the gut reaction by a huge majority of Californians in early October, when a Los Angeles Times poll found that it was supported by a margin of 59 percent to 33 percent among likely voters. The margin narrowed, though, to 51 percent to 41 percent this week, after a barrage of criticism from President Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and conservative opponents.

Hispanic voters are beginning to turn against the policy too, fearing that because of the color of their skin they could be forced to prove they're here legally.

"They might think I'm not an American citizen," said Sergio Bojorquez, a 29-year-old Mexican native who is working a day job and going to school at night.

Opponents are trying to take the visceral emotion out of the question and shift the debate to the dangers of enacting the hard-nosed measure. They point to an independent analysis that says Proposition 187 would cut off $15-billion in federal funding, push thousands of schoolchildren out onto the streets and spread disease by failing to offer preventive health care to immigrants.

John deBeck, president of the Board of Education in San Diego, said legal immigrants _ not the illegal ones _ are stretching his resources. There are 65 different native languages spoken among the 130,000 students in his system.

Just 3,000 San Diego students are illegal immigrants, he estimated, adding: "We've accepted that responsibility enthusiastically, because the kid deserves an education."

Critics say the measure will neither force immigrants back to their home country nor withstand the inevitable legal challenge. But drafters of the plan _ including a former federal Immigration official for this region _ say they welcome a legal challenge. They want to overturn a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that requires states provide schooling to illegal immigrants.

The measure continues to strike a chord with voters, even though most concede that the proposal probably won't clear a court challenge. They're still searching for a solution.

"We seem to think that we can just block ourselves off, that people who we think are here without documentation are going to leave our country and we will have nothing to do with them," said Alice McCauley, vice president of the League of Women Voters in San Diego. "That is not true. We live among them."

"We've become more alienated from one another," complained Lela Clinton, reflecting on her 32 years in California. "I think it's because we don't trust one another."