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Proposition 187 and the Law of Unintended Consequences : Anti-immigrant initiative would deny medical care, roil schools and make snoops out of teachers; is this what California wants?

PROP. 187. A look at a key issue on the Nov. 8 ballot. One in a series

October 02, 1994

Illegal immigration to America is obviously a significant problem, especially in California. But how Californians react to it can either produce thoughtful policy that can be a model for the nation or a half-baked approach that could actually have dangerous consequences.

What will it be?

THE CONTEXT: The issue of illegal immigration has reached a fever pitch here for three reasons. One is simply that the number of illegal immigrants is large. The second is that the gubernatorial campaign has dwelt on the issue. And the third is the looming presence of statewide ballot Proposition 187, to be voted on Nov. 8. We strongly recommend a "no" vote.

This measure proposes to prohibit state and local governments from providing education, health care or other social services to illegal immigrants. Proponents claim that state and local governments' services and benefits aggravate the problem by enticing many people into entering the country illegally and that social tensions resulting from immigration will only worsen unless California does a dramatic about-face.

Proposition 187 supporters admit that some of the measures are Draconian--for instance, state and local agencies would be required to report "apparent illegal aliens" to immigration authorities. But they argue that more moderate, intermediate measures--minor congressional reforms and local patch jobs--are not enough.

Proposition 187 has a parallel to Proposition 13, the controversial 1978 statewide ballot measure limiting property taxation, in that it is one of those thunderbolt, send-'em-a-message ballot measures. But, also like Proposition 13, it would surely produce many unintended bad results. Proposition 187's understandable appeal is based on the assumption that we have to do something about illegal immigration. We certainly do. And this proposition would certainly Do Something. But what it would do is not something California should want to happen.


Is illegal immigration only a negative force? Of course not. What about the economic benefits that accrue from all recent immigrants, even those who are here illegally, such as low-wage but highly productive labor? Think of all the work--from home repair to garment manufacturing--that keeps marginal businesses profitable and allows new small firms to open. Think what the world-famous California economy would be like without the many thousands of tiny businesses and service firms that depend on low-cost labor. Guess who's picking the crops for the California agribusiness that is the envy of the world?

Remember: There are powerful economic factors at work here. Reputable experts disagree over how many new immigrants this state can absorb without severe consequence and over whether they are a net plus or a negative for the economy. But the experts are virtually unanimous on what draws most immigrants here: The lure is jobs, however ill-paid, not welfare. The United States and Mexico should work out a sensible arrangement that recognizes the reality of this powerful job magnet and minimizes the exploitation of these workers while also discouraging illegal resettlement in the United States.


To refuse to provide fundamental health care is downright dangerous to the public interest. If Proposition 187 passes, and is upheld in the courts, people here illegally would be denied basic health care even if their medical problems were serious, even if they had communicable diseases, even if a low-cost dose of preventive medicine could nip a potentially costly problem in the bud.

A major and vital goal of public health care is to keep the problems of even the sickest and most destitute individuals from becoming a danger to the rest of the population. Say an illegal immigrant with an infectious disease like tuberculosis is turned away from a public clinic. Health professionals worry that he is less likely to return to his homeland than to become a potential health threat to those he comes in contact with in this country. Is the public interest better served by treating the disease or turning the carrier away?


Though based on a longer-term definition of the public good, the argument for educating the children of illegal immigrants is similar. First, studies have shown that even children born abroad who are raised here by immigrant parents are more likely to remain in the United States than go home, even if their parents eventually return to their countries of origin. So it is in the public interest to make sure they become well-educated and acculturated to American life. At least then they will be likely to be productive members of society as adults. It's no wonder so many law-enforcement officials are vigorously campaigning against Proposition 187. By tossing kids out of school it's virtually an unintended but effective gang-recruitment tool.


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