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Foes of Prop. 187 Toeing a Difficult Line : Strategy: In their fight to maintain immigrant rights, some opponents of the ballot initiative have steered away from the high-profile use of Latinos. 'We're keeping the brown faces in the background,' one says.

September 26, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Asked about the campaign to defeat Proposition 187, one leading Latino activist heavily involved in the effort responded, "We're keeping the brown faces in the background."

For many immigrant advocates, the anti-187 strategy has involved a wrenching--and sometimes-controversial--compromise.

In an effort to appeal to the voting majority, anti-187 forces have de-emphasized the involvement of Latinos and immigrant-rights representatives in the mainstream campaign targeting the hearts and minds of white suburbia. Instead, spokesmen such as Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block have taken center stage to bolster the case.

The pragmatic strategy--which acknowledges illegal immigration as a serious problem--is indicative of how much the public debate has shifted in favor of those backing a more restrictionist immigration policy, especially in California. The dramatic swing has left immigrant advocates scrambling to devise appropriate responses.

Representatives of the principal umbrella group spearheading the opposition, Taxpayers Against 187, paint near-apocalyptic pictures: youngsters, denied education, becoming more susceptible to committing crimes; illegal immigrants lacking health care spreading disease throughout the state. The human toll on hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants is being framed in relation to its impact on the voting public.

Immigrant advocates remain active in planning, coordinating, fund-raising, voter registration, citizenship sign-up and get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at defeating the initiative. But many Latino activists and even lawmakers have limited their public responses and appearances to audiences of Latinos or liberals, the Spanish-language media and other groups presumably more amenable to their message.

"Sometimes it can be difficult to hold your tongue," noted a leading Latino activist, who, like others, asked to remain anonymous. "But we'd be irresponsible not to do it now."

Added another: "The fact is, if you go up and you have brown skin on this issue, people aren't going to listen to you. . . . They don't look beyond the messenger to the message."

Others question the approach and are devising their own game plan.

"Regardless of the outcome of 187, we cannot hide," said Jose De Paz, who heads the California Immigrant Workers Assn., an activist group linked to organized labor. "We're going to have to fight our own battles."

The group is among those organizing a large anti-187 rally being planned for Los Angeles on Oct. 16, barely three weeks before election day. The demonstration is a follow-up to the May 28 rally that supporters say drew more than 10,000 people.

Some immigrant advocates sought to postpone the march, underlining divisions within the advocate ranks. Their fear: A heavily publicized sea of Latino faces would only further alienate many undecided or wavering voters.

"The last thing we need is a sense that L.A. is truly overrun by all these immigrants," complained one activist. "A lot of this is about image."

Sponsors plan to go ahead anyway.

Explained Juan Jose Gutierrez, executive director of One Stop Immigration, an Eastside social service organization backing the October march: "We don't all have to accept a strategy that basically tells us we should sit on the sidelines and watch the game from the bench."

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