Harassment in the Wake Of Proposition 187

In California, a name or accent seems to cast doubt on citizenship

BY all accounts, California voters sent a message Nov. 8 with a decisive vote to pass Proposition 187.

To most observers, the message is clear: Undocumented immigration has gone unchecked for too long. Convinced that the costs of providing services to undocumented immigrants are a burden to the taxpayer, voters agreed to cut them off.

But as the dust settles from the election and the battle moves to the courts, the real message of Proposition 187 becomes apparent. Californians are frustrated and angry. But in voicing these sentiments through Proposition 187, they went much too far.

An ugly intolerance

Proposition 187 goes far beyond simple frustration about the nation's failure to control its borders. It defies the Constitution, jeopardizes the health and well being of all Californians, and ushers in an ugly era of intolerance, all in order to punish the less than 5 percent of the state's population that is undocumented.

The ultimate goal of this debate is eminently reasonable; the nation can and should find effective ways to control its borders. But the methods presented in Proposition 187 offer nothing of real value to control immigration. It contains no provisions to improve enforcement at the border or other points of entry. It does not provide for the enforcement of labor laws that could be effectively used to punish employers and even entire industries that rely on easily exploited undocumented labor. Instead, 187 relies on the false assumption heavily orchestrated by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) that undocumented immigrants are eligible for an array of social services that draw them like a magnet into the United States.

While many California voters believed that they were voting to deny welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants, the fact is that these immigrants were already ineligible for welfare. The services to be cut, such as education, immunization, and prenatal care, are in the interest of the entire community.

The reason that the nation's laws did not already restrict these services is simple: It costs taxpayers more in the long run not to provide them. Think of what we could pay if we allow even one person suffering from a communicable disease to go untreated. Or if we force someone to stay away from the doctor until his condition becomes so serious that he goes to the hospital emergency room.

Even though Proposition 187 has been blocked in the courts, already, two people afraid to seek treatment have died. Surely even the most hard-hearted California voters did not anticipate that Proposition 187 would lead to this.

The costs of denying children an education are no less serious. In a state that is already struggling to educate its children properly and fight crime in the streets, it is hardly good policy to throw a couple of hundred thousand children out of school, and to create an atmosphere of suspicion and fear in what are supposed to be places of learning.

Though the courts have blocked the education provisions of 187, already a fifth-grade teacher in one California school district has assigned her students to report their own immigration status and that of their parents. And a school security guard in Atherton, Calif., the day after the election, told two American-born Laitnas, ``We don't have to let Mexicans in here anymore.''

By being penny wise and pound foolish, California voters have chosen to shoulder a burden far greater than any hardships imposed by immigrants.

But perhaps most alarming are the enormous social costs that Californians will shoulder as a result of this ugly and divisive debate. Though most of the law is not in effect, already a few zealots have decided to use it as a weapon to single out those whose ethnic appearance or surnames suggest that they might be immigrants - a group that includes millions of Californians with last names like mine.

Perhaps one of the volunteers campaigning for the proposition said it best when she described how to implement the measure: ``You can tell which ones are illegal aliens; they're the ones speaking Spanish.'' Is it any wonder that millions of proudly bilingual Latinos like me, born and raised in the US, some with roots that go back hundreds of years, should feel like instant targets as a result of this debate?

In fact, our worst fears are already being realized. Already, many of us whose ethnic appearance, surname, or accent reveals our heritage are being singled out and harassed while performing the simplest of tasks, such as buying groceries, ordering a pizza, or removing our own money from bank accounts.

Unintended results

Californians may not have intended this outcome, but the communities that overwhelmingly opposed this law did so because they foresaw this result. We are not comforted when we imagine that our neighbors did not mean for us to be targeted. Latino and Asian, native born and immigrant alike, are being sent the message that we are not welcome in our own country. (See `Vigilante Enforcers,' upper right.)

Sadly, the message that California voters sent in November is that frustration sometimes overcomes common sense. What we need now is a rational, informed policy debate on immigration control rather than the angry, emotional, and ultimately counterproductive one California has just experienced.

Those of us who believe in the American dream, that our nation's diversity is one of its greatest strengths, can only hope that the real message of Proposition 187 is that America can do better - much better. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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