SACRAMENTO — Answering a question he has avoided for more than a year, Gov. Pete Wilson said Thursday that he would favor expelling illegal immigrants from the public schools if the U.S. Supreme Court allows it.
The Republican governor said the state cannot afford the estimated $1.5 billion it costs to educate more than 300,000 illegal immigrants now attending kindergarten through 12th-grade classes.
"We cannot educate every child from here to Tierra del Fuego," Wilson said at a news conference in the Capitol.
In general, the Republican governor has backed Proposition 187--an anti-illegal immigration measure on the November ballot--but until Thursday had not taken a stand on the initiative's most explosive provisions, which would bar illegal immigrants from the state's schools and require educators to check on the citizenship status of all students and their parents.
Wilson had said he favored the measure as a way to provoke a legal challenge to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from denying illegal immigrants a public education.
When pressed Thursday to explain what he would do if the Supreme Court upheld the initiative, Wilson said: "We implement the law."
A Wilson spokeswoman later clarified the governor's comments, saying Wilson would prefer to see Proposition 187 coupled with a stronger federal effort to deport illegal immigrants so that children barred from schools do not remain in this country. But ultimately, the aide said, the governor supports the education provisions of the proposition as written.
"If it's upheld, that is fine with him," said Communications Director Leslie Goodman.
Wilson's comments came as the immigration issue re-emerged at the forefront of his reelection campaign against Democrat Kathleen Brown.
Brown opposes Proposition 187. Removing children from the schools, she said Thursday, would be likely to result in "more trouble, more gangs, more guns, more graffiti and more cost to the taxpayers."
Campaigning Thursday in Los Angeles, Brown stepped up her charge that Wilson has been a hypocrite on the issue.
She cited letters that Wilson, then a U.S. senator, wrote in 1987 to President Ronald Reagan and his attorney general, Edwin Meese, complaining that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was making it too difficult for Mexican farm workers to enter the country to pick crops.
Brown also blasted Wilson for trying now to curtail health services to illegal immigrants even though he voted as a senator to provide them. And she showed an informational videotape featuring Wilson in which the state encourages non-citizens to apply for government benefits.
"Pete Wilson votes to impose health care mandates--and now he campaigns against them," Brown said. "He cut a hole in the fence to allow millions of illegal immigrants in, and now he wants to patch that hole because that's what the polls tell him to do."
Wilson aides, in response, said he favored a stricter guest worker program when he was a senator but had to settle for the weaker version drafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives. He wrote the letters, they said, because California farmers faced a severe labor shortage and needed migrant workers quicker than the federal government was processing them.
Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary, said the informational video cited by Brown was pulled recently after the state Health and Welfare Agency realized it was being shown in informational kiosks throughout the state.
"Some bureaucrat somewhere was asleep at the switch, but the governor is absolutely adamant, crystal clear on his views on this issue," Walsh said. "Folks better shape up."
Wilson on Thursday also signed legislation cracking down on immigration fraud, prohibiting the issuance of state contracts to companies convicted of hiring illegal immigrants, and easing the transfer of illegal immigrant felons from state prisons to federal custody.
At his news conference, Wilson spoke at length about Proposition 187, which he has said he will vote for but has yet to formally endorse. The measure would prohibit the delivery of public services, except emergency medical care, to illegal immigrants.
The initiative is opposed by the California Teachers Assn., the California Medical Assn., some law enforcement groups and business associations, which say the measure is too extreme. However, a Los Angeles Times poll this week found wide public support for it, with 62% of likely voters saying they favor passage of the initiative.
Wilson has tried to walk a fine line on the education issue. Although he has complained about the cost of educating illegal immigrants since early 1993, the governor has refused to say whether he personally favored kicking out of school those children who are in the country illegally.
On Thursday, Wilson again tried to deflect the question by asserting that the federal government, not the state, would ultimately decide how to handle those children. But when asked to state his personal opinion, he replied:
"At some point, I think, there has to be a clear line drawn."
Wilson noted that federal law for eight years has required employers to verify the legal status of those they hire and said he believes the same standard should apply to public services.
If Proposition 187 were upheld, Wilson said, he would "institute some kind of orderly process of determining who was legally in school or what parents were or were not legal and begin that kind of deportation that is necessary."