Backers of Prop. 187 Push for New Initiative
Proposed measure to deny services to illegal immigrants raises fears of divisive racial politics.
By Daniel Hernandez Times Staff Writer
December 20, 2003
Organizers who a decade ago wrote Proposition 187 - a landmark ballot measure that divided California - are now gathering signatures for a new initiative that again would attempt to prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving a broad array of public services.
Proposition 187 is considered a watershed in state politics, having galvanized activism among opponents and cost Republicans support from some Latinos.
But organizers, encouraged by the successful recalling of Gov. Gray Davis, hope to place on the November ballot a proposition that, while similar to the 1994 measure, would include several changes that they say would stall legal challenges.
"We are taking a step back from Prop. 187," said Ron Prince, the Tustin accountant who spearheaded the earlier proposition. "What we are trying to do is build the largest possible public consensus on this issue, and how to deal with it. And that's what we expect to do."
Voters approved Proposition 187, 60% to 40%, at the end of a racially charged campaign. But in 1998, a federal judge tossed out the measure, finding that it conflicted with federal welfare laws and that the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over immigration issues.
Like 187, the new proposal would require providers of public health and other services to verify applicants' legal residence status. It would also:
· Make it a misdemeanor for state and local officials - such as police officers - not to report immigration law violations to federal authorities.
· Require the state to verify the legal residence status of applicants for driver's licenses.
· Prohibit the state from accepting foreign-issued identification cards, such as Mexico's widely used matricula consular, a fingerprinted photo card.
But the effort is already generating concern - and not just from immigrants-rights groups. Though Proposition 187 was backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republican leaders, some GOP officials worry that another immigration-related measure could hurt the party.
Abel Maldonado, a Republican state Assemblyman from San Luis Obispo who served as an advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign to replace Davis, said the initiative would needlessly reignite bitter racial politics.
"We don't need propositions that would divide this state at this time. That's not the business we're in," Maldonado said. "Let Gov. Schwarzenegger govern for a little bit. We don't need to open old wounds."
Linda Boyd, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Republican Party, added: "You know the damage that happened as a result of 187. It puts the Republican Party in a difficult spot. Officially, our party is not going to have a stance on it."
To qualify for the November ballot, Prince and his allies must collect 500,900 signatures by April and have them certified by the secretary of state.
Some are skeptical that they can make the deadline, especially considering that there is no clear source of funding. The Davis recall campaign started as a grass-roots effort, but Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) provided more than $1 million to hire professional signature collectors to do the work.
Prince said thousands of petitions had been mailed out last week and that many more were being downloaded from the backers' website, save187.com. The campaign is counting on volunteers to collect the signatures, as well as small donations from supporters, though officials would not say how much they have raised so far.
Fred Woocher, a Santa Monica attorney and a leading expert on California initiatives, said it's unlikely that the group can get the signatures needed without professional help.
"The days of something catching by wildfire alone are over," Woocher said. "There is going to need to be cash in hand. It's just too many signatures and too many other people doing other things right now."
Backers of the Save Our State Initiative said they were aware of the stigma Proposition 187 carries in some eyes and asserted that their new campaign would be less divisive. They have dropped a key proposal from the 1994 initiative: denial of public education to illegal immigrants. Prince said he believed this change would forestall legal challenges.
Prince also said the campaign for the new ballot measure would be different from the campaign in 1994, when Proposition 187 became the most controversial issue in Wilson's reelection bid. Wilson's campaign ran television ads showing illegal immigrants running across the border in Tijuana with the caption "They Keep Coming." He said Wilson's ads had been a mistake because they had fueled criticism by Latino activists who said the initiative was racist.
"I don't think Pete Wilson will be running for office anytime soon," Prince said.
Supporters believe the time is right for the measure, not just because of the successful recall, but also because of another initiative campaign this fall. After Davis signed SB 60, a law giving illegal immigrants the right to hold driver's licenses, a group launched a campaign to ask voters to repeal the law. They gathered 500,000 signatures in less than 90 days. Schwarzenegger opposed SB 60, and the Legislature repealed it last month.
Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly and an organizer of the SB 60 repeal campaign, is not involved in the Save Our State Initiative but said the GOP should not dismiss it out of hand.
"The Republican Party makes a mistake by viewing it through the same racial lenses that some illegal immigrant activists do," Spence said.
Prince said that, if the initiative makes the ballot and passes, he would count on Schwarzenegger to offer a vigorous defense against any legal challenges. Ashley Snee, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Schwarzenegger would not comment on any proposed ballot measure until it qualified for the ballot.
Whatever the measure's chances, immigrants-rights groups have roundly criticized the proposal, calling it a return to racial politics that sharply divided the state in the past.
The measure would turn law enforcement officers into federal immigration agents, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and "seeks to tie the arms of local municipalities in conducting everyday business."