LOS ANGELES — A HARDENING tone toward illegal immigration could be a keynote of the 1990s.
California's approval of Proposition 187, the state ballot initiative that would bar illegal immigrants from many government services, faces a protracted legal battle.
But the measure's overwhelming approval Tuesday signals a conclusive win for anti-immigrant forces that will drive debate on the issue in Washington, D.C., and state capitals around the country. It may prove a boost to some big-name politicians - mainly Republican - who embraced the measure.
It complicates relations between the US and Mexico, since some leaders south of the border have denounced the measure as ``racist.''
``The passage of Prop. 187 and election of [Gov.] Pete Wilson send an irrefutable message to Congress and Bill Clinton that the American public won't tolerate inaction any longer on a host of immigrant issues,'' says Rosemary Jencks, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
Other initiatives passed Tuesday signal a rebelliousness with the status quo, too. Riding a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, four states - Nebraska, Maine, Colorado, and Massachusetts - joined the growing list of those imposing term limits on their US senators and House members.
Oregon became the first place in the world to authorize doctor-assisted suicide.
But voters in Oregon and Idaho rejected measures that would have barred local governments from enacting laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination.
Georgia voters approved the nation's toughest sentencing law, mandating life in prison for a second violent felony. And while New Mexico approved a state lottery and video gambling, and Missouri gave the nod to slot machines for riverboat casinos, Floridians turned down a casino proposal.
Though many of the ballot measures courted controversy, none created the stir of California's Prop. 187 - the nation's most-watched referendum. The so-called ``Save our State'' initiative would cut off many public services to illegal immigrants, such as education, welfare, and all but emergency medical care. It would require teachers, welfare workers, and police to report illegal immigrants for possible detention and deportation.
Governor Wilson, who won reelection by a wide margin, made Prop. 187 a pillar of his campaign. That and the Republican remake of Congress make new immigration policy likely.
``We are looking at a new restrictionist climate probably early on in the next session,'' says a congressional immigration consultant. ``Given the Republican majority in both houses, there will be a toughening across the board and a panoply of new ideas.''
A reopened dialogue on quotas for legal immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers return to Congress, observers say, in addition to new measures to crackdown on illegal entries, toughen employer sanctions, and deal with illegals convicted of crimes.
``If the Democrats are going to have any chance of comeback in 1996, they are going to have to do something different in the next Congress,'' Jencks says.
The 2 to 1 margin of victory on Prop. 187 will likely spur similar measures in other states. ``Organizers in Florida, Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Texas are already calling us,'' says Barbara Kiley of the group that spearheaded the initiative.
Still, opponents of the measure, who consider it xenophobic and unconstitutional, are not sitting idle. Several groups have filed lawsuits against the intitiation, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
``This is a horrendously written document that treats the Constitution like a dartboard,'' says Christopher Herrera, spokesman for the ACLU of Southern California.
Proponents admit that at least one provision of Prop. 187 violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which, as interpreted by the US Spreme Court, holds that immigrant children are entitled to public education. But the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed since it last ruled on the matter in 1982, in the case Plyer v. Doe, and thus a challenge may not stand.
But Erwin Chemerinksy, constitutional law expert at the University of Southern California, doesn't expect the Supreme Court to overturn the case. ``Even the most conservative members of court are loathe to overturn their own precedents,'' he says.