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THE ELECTION: Making and Breaking Law

7 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Lamont

Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land . . . and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen . . . Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners.

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The 29 kindergartners in Lynne Wiswall’s class, all Latino, had painted big American flags and attached them to wooden sticks in preparation for Veterans Day. But in her sunny classroom last week, down the road from a migrant camp where Steinbeck set his famous novel, Wiswall sadly put the red-white-and-blue banners aside. Californians had just approved a ballot initiative to deny public education and social services to illegal immigrants. How many of her Spanish-speaking five-year-olds were undocumented? Wiswall was not about to ask. But one thing she had decided: “I can’t send these flags home with them now,” she said. “I have the feeling everything’s changed.”

The sign on the road into town still reads Lamont, Growing to Feed the World. Like other San Joaquin Valley towns, and like much of California, Lamont (pop. 12,000) has for years welcomed immigrants — illegal as well as legal, with few questions asked. Who else would pick grapes, pack carrots or wash dishes for $4.25 an hour or less? A few weeks ago, the town celebrated its annual “Weekend of Diversity” — with an Okie migration commemoration on Saturday and a Hispanic fiesta on Sunday. But now Proposition 187 — one of the most sweeping restrictions on aliens ever enacted in the U.S. — has divided Californians along ethnic and economic lines, its angry message reverberating across the country. “When we were prospering, we closed our eyes to illegal immigration,” said Juan Rivera, president of Lamont’s chamber of commerce. “Now because times are tough, it is easy to pin the blame on one group.”

& Those who had dismissed the initiative as merely a tactical weapon in California Governor Pete Wilson’s crusade to get federal dollars to close his budget deficit were quickly disabused. Immediately after the 59% to 41% vote in favor of 187, he moved to bar illegal immigrants from receiving prenatal services and from entering nursing homes — thus, he claimed, freeing $90 million a year in funds for legal residents. Wilson declared, “The people of California have passed Proposition 187. Now we must enforce it.”

Not so fast. The day after the vote, eight lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts. A San Francisco superior court judge temporarily restricted the state from expelling an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrant children from public schools, pending a hearing. A similar order extended to public colleges and universities. Opponents are counting on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the education restrictions. In 1982 the court invalidated a Texas law barring illegal aliens from public schools, holding that “penalizing the child is an ineffectual — as well as unjust — way of deterring the parent.” Even the dissenting opinion acknowledged that “it would be folly — and wrong — to tolerate the creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons.” But the decision split 5 to 4, and the ballot measure’s proponents are hoping a new court will reopen the issue.

Provisions withholding nonemergency medical care and other services from illegal immigrants and requiring schools, hospitals and police departments to report suspected undocumented aliens may prove more difficult to overturn. A U.S. district court will hear civil rights groups’ lawsuits this week. One delicate issue for President Clinton: Should the Federal Government withdraw some $15 billion of funding for social programs if enforcement of 187 conflicts with federal regulations?

While lawyers argued, a defiant mood, bordering on disobedience, seized many of those who must implement the new law. The Los Angeles city council voted to join legal challenges and, in the meantime, directed its employees to continue providing services. Although 187 appears to exclude illegal immigrant children from foster care, Los Angeles County children and family services director Peter Digre said, “It’s unimaginable that the voters meant for us to ignore battered, molested or starving two-year-olds just because they are undocumented.” Los Angeles police chief Willie Williams announced there were . no policy changes in his department, although the initiative requires local law-enforcement officers to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service any illegal alien arrested for other reasons. Officials, however, were bombarded with angry calls, protesting the use of taxpayer funds for lawsuits and threatening recalls of recalcitrant politicians. Several clinics reported a sharp drop in visits, as immigrants worried about deportation.

At the Sierra Vista clinic in Lamont, pediatrician Pierrette Poinsett said she would quit before turning away patients. “I see up to three kids a week who test positive for tuberculosis,” she said. “This proposition will result in more disease, more teenage pregnancy. It targets the most vulnerable population — children. It is unconscionable.”

But Juan Rivera, who grew up in a migrant camp and now volunteers as the chamber of commerce head, could not afford to give up his state job as a prenatal-care eligibility clerk. “It tears me apart,” he said, “but I will have to turn people away.” Of the 60 pregnant women he sees each month, he said, about 20 are illegal aliens.

Although most illegals work and pay taxes, they do not pay enough to counter public anger over crime, taxes and cultural conflict. “Illegal aliens are a category of criminal, not a category of ethnic group,” said Ron Prince, an Orange County accountant, who organized the initiative. Nonetheless, the racial divide in last week’s vote was striking. Although non-Hispanic whites make up only 57% of California’s population, they make up 80% of eligible voters, and they voted 2 to 1 for Proposition 187. Latinos, a quarter of the population, represented only 8% of last week’s voters, and they opposed the measure 3 to 1. Their cause was hurt by protest marches that many white Californians found threatening. “On TV there was nothing but Mexican flags and brown faces,” said Robert Kiley, the initiative campaign’s political consultant.

California hosts about 40% of the nation’s estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants. “We have to defend ourselves against invaders,” said statistician Barbara Coe, co-chair of the initiative. “The militant Mexican- American groups want to take back California. Our children cannot get an education, because their classes are jammed with illegals. In many classes only 20 minutes of English is spoken an hour.” Coe has had inquiries about expanding her group to 20 other states. Repercussions were felt in Colorado and Texas last week as Hispanics protested the vote, some even vowing to boycott California goods.

Whether the proposition survives legal challenges or not, it should spur better enforcement of existing laws. Although it is a crime to hire illegal aliens, employers are rarely prosecuted. And the INS, underfunded and disorganized, would be hard put to deal with all the undocumented immigrants that 187 could dump in its lap.

The deeper issue is what happens to the California dream, the hope that Lynne Wiswall’s kindergartners can wave their American flags with pride, the expectation that more than a century after the territory was seized from Mexico, California’s multiethnic citizens could live in peace. The 187 proponents “have forgotten that this piece of land belonged to Mexico,” said housewife Yolanda Rivera, emerging from a polling booth on Los Angeles’ Cesar Chavez Avenue. “We are all immigrants — even the ones who came on the Mayflower. We all came to try to get ahead, and we all deserve that opportunity.”

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