Immigrant-rights groups face battle despite court win Ruling does not overturn Calif. measure completely


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As the euphoria of their court victory this week wore off, opponents of Proposition 187 began garnering ammunition for a long-term legal battle in which success is far from certain.

Particularly worrisome to foes of the initiative, which sought to deny a host of state benefits to illegal immigrants, was U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer's ruling that parts can survive even as others are jettisoned. Attorneys for immigrant-rights groups had been hoping for a grand slam from her, reviled by 187 boosters as a "pro-illegal-alien" judge.

But a close reading of her 72-page decision showed that Judge Pfaelzer believes denying benefits to illegal immigrants is constitutionally permissible as long as it's consistent with federal statutes and done in a prudent way that doesn't emulate Big Brother.

To show what she considered a proper way to deny benefits, Judge Pfaelzer pointed to a federally mandated program in which state workers check with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service for information on the immigration status of welfare applicants. The workers simply access INS information, and are not allowed to report illegal immigrants to the agency -- as called for in Proposition 187.

From here, the lawsuit will almost certainly go to trial early next year on the legal issues not struck down in Judge Pfaelzer's summary judgment Monday. Not until the trial is over will lawyers be allowed to appeal.

Lawyers battling 187 argued that Judge Pfaelzer had no choice but to rule the way she did -- because federal law and prior court decisions are so clear about the state's role in immigration.

Her 72-page decision represented "nothing more and nothing less than the state of the world," said Doug Mirell, an attorney working for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.

But, Mr. Mirell conceded, that world can change quickly.

"Sure, Congress can do a number of things against undocumented immigrants -- and we're going to have problems," he said. "Congress could choose to enact a national version of 187."

Gov. Pete Wilson had a similar view of the political terrain.

"California taxpayers should know that Congress has heard our outrage, and they are acting," said Governor Wilson. "We are very encouraged by federal law changes advancing through the Congress and are hopeful that when they pass, much of Proposition 187 will become law despite the court's ruling."

Mr. Wilson pointed to a provision recently inserted into the popular welfare-reform bill, which has cleared both houses of Congress in different forms, although it is still unclear whether Mr. Clinton will sign such legislation. Paul Kranhold, Mr. Wilson's press secretary, said that the amendment would permit states to require that employees of agencies such as welfare and university admission offices provide the INS with information on the immigration status of applicants.

Similar provisions in Proposition 187 were struck down Monday by Judge Pfaelzer, who ruled that the authority to regulate immigration belonged exclusively to the federal government.

Speaking to reporters in San Jose, where he met with a small group of executives employed in technology industries, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was sympathetic to efforts to legislatively overturn Judge Pfaelzer's ruling.

The ruling "sends a message to Congress that we may have to get into this," the GOP front-runner said.

Groups supporting Proposition 187 predicted that Judge Pfaelzer's ruling will backfire.

"It throws the ball back into Congress' court with a new sense of urgency," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This a tremendous incentive for Congress to pass more legislation" to fight illegal immigration.

Other analysts warned that the politics of Proposition 187 aren't as simple as they might appear.

Mr. Clinton might be reluctant to support any legislation perceived as anti-immigrant, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a Claremont policy research institutes that focuses on Latino issues. That's because Latino voters opposed Proposition 187 by a 4-1 ratio -- and Mr. Pachon said that Mr. Clinton will need those voters to win California next year.

Mr. Pachon also speculated that many Asian-American and black voters -- who were evenly split on the measure last year -- have since turned against it, after it led to congressional bills aimed at legal immigrants and became associated with efforts to eliminate affirmative action programs.

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