New California Gov. Gray Davis is nearing a day of reckoning. By April 5, he must tell Californians where he stands on one of the most divisive anti-immigrant measures passed this decade.
His dilemma is whether to drop the state's legal defense of Proposition 187, the landmark initiative that denies public benefits to illegal immigrants. The controversial measure passed overwhelmingly in 1994, but has been stalled in court since.
The choice Governor Davis makes will have a profound impact on the state's uneasy relationships with both US immigrants - 4 of every 10 arrive here - and Mexico.
Moreover, it will shape the fortunes of the governor and his Democratic Party. If Davis abandons Prop. 187, he would strengthen his party's hold on Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the electorate. But he would also risk alienating the 60 percent of California voters who supported the ballot.
"How Gray Davis chooses at this juncture is critical," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, which tracks voting patterns in the state. One-third of the nation's Latino population resides here, and 1998 polls showed they accounted for 12 percent of votes cast - an all-time high and double that of 1990. About 70 percent voted Democratic. "Proposition 187 is probably the biggest tool the Democrats have had to demonize the Republicans and win the Latino vote. This could play an enormous role in the presidential primary sweepstakes here next year."
California has about 10 million Latinos and the largest immigrant community from Mexico. Davis openly opposed Prop. 187 while he was lieutenant governor under former Gov. Pete Wilson (R). Mr. Wilson had made the measure a pillar of his election strategy, which had chilled relations with Mexico.
Reaching out to Mexico
But Davis has reached out to Mexico in the opening months of his term. Ideas for rapprochement range from educational exchanges and joint technical research to easing border pollution. To let Prop. 187 die, say members of the Latino community, would pave the way for a new Mexico-California relationship as well as seal Davis's - and the Democratic Party's - popularity with this group of voters.
"If Davis would let 187 die in the courts, he would instantaneously become the golden boy of Mexico-California relations," says Antonia Gonzales, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. "It would send a triple message: that California and Mexico are unified, that California cares about its immigrants and foreign neighbors, and that it's time to reconcile."
But Davis also said repeatedly in his heated election campaign that he would never thwart the will of the people. He has vowed to uphold two other controversial initiatives that he opposed. Those include Proposition 209, which banned government affirmative-action programs, and last year's Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.
"How can Gray Davis legitimately say he will uphold Prop. 209 and Prop. 227, which the people voted in against his will, and not support 187 as well?" asks Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.
She points out that Prop. 187 passed by an even greater margin than either of the others. And there are those who say a clone of Prop. 187 would emerge if Davis let it die. "There is absolutely the same sentiment among the populace to create another measure that would deny benefits to illegals," says state Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R). "There are also a lot of people out there who didn't vote [for Prop. 187], who don't want the public will overturned by a politician."
Two of the state's leading Latino politicians are state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Both are leaning on Davis publicly to drop the Prop. 187 court appeal.
"There's no question that if the governor moves ahead with this appeal, that there will be a great deal of antipathy in the Latino community," said Mr. Villaraigosa.
"You can't vilify and scapegoat an entire community as Prop. 187 did and expect you're not going to engender a great deal of anger and emotion," he added. "This is a seminal issue for many of us."
Some observers have noted that Davis could choose a middle course between abandoning Prop. 187 and outright appeal. That would mean supporting specific measures within the initiative while abandoning others.
Ninth US District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer held that the core provisions - banning illegals from health care, public schooling, and social services - were illegal. But she let stand a provision that raises penalties for fraudulent documents for immigration purposes.
"It's possible that Davis could pick and choose which provisions to defend but we are hoping he doesn't try to split the baby," says Vibiana Andrade, national legal counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Noting that the state economy has made a dramatic turnaround from recession, Ms. Andrade says the underlying reasons that voters wanted Prop. 187 have changed. "People's fear over losing their jobs has changed, tax revenues are up, and the politics of this is far different from five years ago. There are no upsides for Davis to challenge this, and plenty of downsides."