California's SOS Initiative Sizzles

BIG names and big money are mobilizing in the fight over an emotionally charged California ballot initiative that could reshape the national debate on immigration policy.

Proponents of the measure that would severely limit public services to illegal immigrants already include some of the top Republicans in the state, as well as former high-ranking federal immigration officials and a broad array of suburbanites and grass-roots supporters.

They are being opposed by a wide-ranging coalition of health professionals, school officials, religious leaders, and law- enforcement authorities. Opponents have also hired a political-consulting firm with a notable record in defeating initiatives to handle their campaign. Thus, even though it enjoys substantial support among voters now, Proposition 187 promises to produce a salsa-hot plebiscite on an issue at the top of the American agenda.

Schooling, basic services

``It is going to be a lot closer than people thought,'' says Steven Erie, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. ``Just look at the constellation of forces organizing against it.''

Dubbed by backers the Save Our State, or SOS, initiative, Proposition 187 would bar illegal immigrants from public schooling, nonemergency medical care, and a variety of social services. It is the first initiative of its kind in the nation.

Coming in a state like California - the late 20th-century's Ellis Island - it could stir the kind of rethinking on immigration that Proposition 13 did on taxes.

A recent Field Poll showed the measure winning by a substantial margin, among those who knew about it. ``The bottom line is jobs,'' says GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum. ``People are frightened at all these immigrants. It is going to be extremely difficult to defeat the measure.''

Last week, opponents launched a campaign to defeat the measure. The group includes leaders of the California State Parent Teachers Association (PTA), the California Teachers Association, California Medical Association, the League of Women Voters, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block. They join Latino activists and the state's top-ranking Roman Catholic cleric, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has vowed to use church resources to fight the initiative.

Critics call the measure a ``hoax'' that would do nothing to deter illegal immigration but, instead, would aggravate social problems. They argue that as many as 400,000 youths could be kicked out of public schools as a result of the initiative, and they envision an education-bereft underclass on the streets exacerbating juvenile crime and, because of a lack of medical care and immunizations, threatening public health.

They also argue that California risks losing up to $15 billion a year in federal funds now provided for health, education, and welfare programs. Reason: conflicts between the measure's provisions and federal privacy and nondiscrimination rules.

``It sounds very appealing,'' says Joel Maliniak, a spokesman for the new group, Taxpayers Against 187, ``but it fails to solve the illegal immigration problem and will cost taxpayers billions.''

Nonsense, say proponents. They note that no pupils are going to be thrown out on the streets. In a landmark 1982 case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that children of illegal immigrants are entitled to a US public-school education.

That decision would have to be overturned before any children could be barred from classrooms - a prime objective of initiative backers. They hope to force the Supreme Court to revisit the issue.

Proponents also point out that only nonemergency medical care would be cut off, which they say is as it should be. As for the loss of federal funds, Harold Ezell, former Western director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service who, along with former INS Commissioner Alan Nelson, authored the proposition, considers the $15-billion loss figure fanciful.

``There is not going to be a loss of money because of SOS,'' he says.

They recite another set of numbers: that undocumented immigrants now cost the state $3.8 billion a year.

Numbers become crucial

Numbers, in fact, are going to be crucial in the politics of the Prop 187 fight. The nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office has concluded that the measure would save about $200 million annually in state and local funds. Excluding more than 300,000 youngsters from schools could add another $1.2 billion to this total.

But the analysis also notes that the measure would cost millions to implement and may put at risk billions in federal money. Clearly, opponents of the proposition, whose strategy is being coordinated by the consulting firm Woodward & McDowell, will be stressing the negative impacts. They hope to raise as much as $4 million in their campaign.

``If they can create doubt in the minds of voters that the initiative will do anything, they might have a shot,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Still, in lean economic times, many Californians may be parsimonious about public benefits.

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