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GEORGE RAMOS

Prop. 187 Foes Get a Boost From an Unlikely Ally

September 19, 1994|GEORGE RAMOS

Ernie Gustafson is the last guy I would have expected to oppose Proposition 187, the so-called Save Our State initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot, because he's no bleeding-heart liberal.

A rock-ribbed conservative, he put in nearly 33 years in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, chasing after border jumpers from the Rio Grande to L.A. He rose through the ranks, becoming the district director for INS operations here and in Phoenix. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Harold Ezell, the controversial INS regional head during the Reagan years and a co-author of Proposition 187, which would deny education and health benefits to illegal immigrants.

When he retired in 1989 from la migra , Gustafson had warred with just about every Latino activist and politician in L.A. who thought him a tool of a racist bureaucracy intent on deporting all foreign-looking people.

So why is he opposing Proposition 187?

"It's a bandage approach to a major problem," he explained, "dreamed up by politicians and wanna-bes with rose-colored glasses. It's a political opportunity for these people. It will solve nothing. It will take the innocence of children and make them the scapegoats of a failed policy."

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Gustafson is different from most who oppose Proposition 187. He is a non-Latino who is intimately familiar with the immigration problem.

While district director in L.A., he never shared Ezell's affinity for cameras and microphones, but he echoed his boss's demand for control of this country's borders. Many grudgingly admired Gustafson because of his folksy desire to put a human face on the immigration service. He has gained legions of fans who listen to his weekly Spanish radio show, on which he answers questions about immigration policy and procedures.

When I heard of his opposition, I was surprised. When I went to see him the other day, he was as I remembered him--direct, plain-spoken and yet passionate.

He slams Ezell, Gov. Pete Wilson, former INS Commissioner Alan Nelson--who support Proposition 187--as opportunists who have used immigration to gain favor with voters. Gustafson is particularly critical of Wilson, who as a U.S. senator in 1988 complained that the INS was too quick to deport illegal immigrants.

"Now, in 1994, he thinks we don't deport them quick enough," Gustafson says.

He rejects the argument that illegals are a drain on California taxpayers.

"The vast majority who come here are not coming for any benefits," he argues, "unless you call living a benefit. They're not coming here to go on welfare. They're not coming here to go on food stamps. They're coming here to work."

His prescription for fighting illegal immigration is twofold. First, he says, a beefed-up Border Patrol, not the U.S. military, is the proper agency to deal with the border.

Second, federal agencies, including the INS, should streamline their rules governing legal immigration. For example, Gustafson says, more than 3 million illegal immigrants nationwide qualified for amnesty under the landmark 1987 legalization law. But the government has been slow to allow relatives of these people to come to this country. Unwilling to wait years for the necessary paperwork, these relatives enter illegally.

"It makes sense to me," he says. "The wife and the kids come because the father, as the qualified alien, is already here. They don't want to wait."

But wait a minute. "You were part of amnesty," I told him.

"I implemented the (amnesty) policy," he replied evenly. "I implemented it with fairness and openness. More than a million applied for amnesty in Los Angeles. I think I did a good job."

What he didn't say is that Ezell, Nelson and others left the INS after their political appointments were up, leaving Gustafson and other career managers in the understaffed agency to grapple with amnesty and other programs. Now, it seems Gustafson's former friends have found new energy to get at illegal immigration in another way--Proposition 187.

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It will be quite a sight when Gustafson joins his onetime enemies, the Latino immigrant-rights advocates and civil libertarians, at an anti-Proposition 187 march scheduled for Oct. 16 in Downtown L.A. "I can't believe Gustafson is going to be with us," says one Latina activist.

I can't either.

Gustafson doesn't care if Ezell--with whom he sang in a trio to promote amnesty--disapproves.

"I've deported Ezell from trio amnistia ," he barks.

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