Calif. ballot initiative would deny services to aliens

May 22, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- A ballot initiative that would deny public education and non-emergency medical care to undocumented immigrants in California is the latest and one of the most drastic attempts to curb illegal immigration and its costs.

Backers of the petition drive, "Save Our State," say they have gathered 600,000 signatures, with those of 384,974 registered voters required to place the proposal on the ballot.

If the requirement is met, the referendum would be on the November ballot. Voter registrars have until Tuesday to verify signatures.

In addition to cutting off social services, the proposal would require teachers, health care workers and the police to report the presence of any "apparent illegal immigrants" they deal with.

Without these services, argued Harold Ezell, one of the initiative's authors and a former Western regional chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, illegal immigrants would "go back to where they came from."

Opponents of the proposal acknowledge that they will have a difficult time defeating it.

But even if it is adopted, the measure would still face hurdles. Civil rights groups say it would be difficult for the authorities to demand documents of "apparent illegal immigrants" without engaging in racial discrimination or bias.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools must educate children regardless of their immigration status. The petition drive's chairman, Ron Prince, said the proposed measure would offer a promising vehicle for the court to reverse its position.

He said that the composition of the court had changed since its ruling on the issue in 1982 and that the ruling had been based on immigration conditions that had changed.

Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for welfare and most other public assistance in California. The measure would not deny emergency care, including for childbirth.

Already, arguments over the Save Our State initiative have crystallized a clash of philosophies over immigration.

"It's obvious we cannot assimilate all of the illegals in the world," Mr. Ezell said.

"How many can we educate, medicate, incarcerate and compensate? Just because they are here illegally doesn't mean they have a right to stay here and a right to our tax dollars."

L Mr. Prince placed the proposal in a purely economic context.

"The initiative is needed because the state is going bankrupt," he said.

But Arturo Vargas, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the measure would require doctors, teachers and police officers to be "agents of a Big Brother state" by making them verify the immigration status of people they serve.

He added that the measure would target Hispanic immigrants, who make up the majority of illegal aliens in California, despite the backers' assurances that the proposal is racially and ethnically color-blind.

Mr. Vargas also questioned the claim that people would stop coming to the United States illegally if the benefits were cut. "That's not why they come," he said. "It would create an underground situation with people living in the shadows of our society."

A Los Angeles Times poll in September found that 86 percent of Californians considered illegal immigration a moderate to a major problem. Seventy-six percent said they believed that illegal immigrants cost more in social services and health care than they contributed in taxes and productivity.

Two months ago, another Los Angeles Times poll found that 62 percent of respondents favored the Save Our State initiative.

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