Proposal Against Illegals In California Irks Mexicans

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``SUPERBARRIO,'' a well-known Catholic priest here who is also a masked free-style wrestler and political activist, has taken to the streets of Mexico City in opposition to California's anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187.

The involvement of the popular champion of Mexico's weak and wronged in the ballot-initiative controversy offers a measure of the extent to which Mexicans are taking the California proposal as a personal and national affront.

Proposition 187 would deny such social services as education and health care to all of the state's undocumented immigrants, but as far as people here are concerned the proposal's targets are Mexico and Mexicans.

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``How many Mexicans cleaned your house and picked your crops today?'' and ``Wilson Racista!'' - in reference to California governor and Proposition 187 proponent Pete Wilson (R) - are among the cries heard at recent anti-Prop 187 protests outside the United States Embassy here.

At the risk of appearing to act contrary to their traditional insistence that one country not violate another's sovereignty, Mexican officials have taken up the anti-Prop 187 cause with gusto. And Mexican media have given the proposal and its ramifications extensive play, chronicling everything from a presumed rise in brutality toward illegal immigrants down to frequent updates on California polls tracking the measure.

Several key factors explain why the proposition has struck such a chord with Mexicans, observers here say:

* The Mexican government, knowing a no-lose opportunity when it sees one, has built up the issue with fiery condemnations of the proposal. Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari won banner headlines last week when he said in a speech from the border that Mexico is ``[committed] to defending the human and labor rights of Mexican migrants in the US.''

He repeated those words in his state of the union address Tuesday - to hearty applause.

Foreign Minister Manuel Tello says there will be consequences for US-Mexico relations if the measure passes, adding that Mexico would support efforts to try the proposition's constitutionality if it becomes law.

* The California measure runs counter to Mexican perceptions of how relations between the two countries were supposed to evolve with enactment this year of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

``It's confusing to people that the US is building iron fences after so much talk of us becoming partners,'' says Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, a Mexican anthropologist specializing in US-Mexico migration.

* Many Mexicans remember that the US southwest was once Mexican, and many have family roots in US soil or relatives living there. To Mexicans whose forebears helped build the California railroads or whose children harvest Central Valley broccoli, even the proposition's exclusionary nickname, ``Save Our State,'' is an affront.

Estimates say about 1 in 5 Mexicans currently has a relative in the US, says Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana, Mexico. ``With such a long tradition of going to the north since Mexico lost the US Southwest in 1848, there isn't the feeling of going someplace unknown,'' Mr. Lopez y Rivas says. ``It's a going-to and coming-from a familiar place.''

ACCORDING to Mr. Clark, passage of NAFTA left Mexicans convinced of a heightened interdependence between the two countries, but measures like Prop 187 - called ``Operation Humiliation'' by some here - have modified that thinking to ``a feeling more like dependence and lost sovereignty; like Mexico was the loser in the free-trade deal.''

That public sentiment may explain why Mexico's leaders are trying to sound so tough on Prop 187. But many here say the toughness is not backed up by action.

``It's pure bluff,'' says Juan Manuel Sandoval Palacios, coordinator of the National Anthropology and History Institute's Chicano and border studies based in Mexico City. ``If Salinas had wanted to defend Mexican workers' rights he could have done it when NAFTA was negotiated,'' he says. ``But with all the dollars those workers send home, the Mexican government has no interest in changing the system.''

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