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GEORGE RAMOS

Prop. 187 Debate: No Tolerance but Abundant Anger

October 10, 1994|GEORGE RAMOS

There wasn't any tolerance the other night at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. Only petty narrow-mindedness held sway.

The center, in conjunction with Occidental College, opened its Peltz Theater in West Los Angeles for a debate on Proposition 187, the supposed "save our state" measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would deny health and educational benefits to illegal immigrants in California. Any hope for a rational discussion was dashed before the debate even started.

Several hundred Latino demonstrators--who have loved to hate Harold Ezell since his days as regional immigration commissioner--confronted him before he took the podium. One protester called Ezell, a godfather of 187, "a bigot and a Nazi."

Amid signs calling him "Slezell," Ezell cried foul, telling reporters on his way out that the assertion was ridiculous. "I don't have a racist bone in my body," he said. Ezell also claimed to know nothing of a comment made by a pro-187 leader, Ron Prince, who enraged protesters by recently telling an audience: "You are the posse and SOS is the rope."

The evening went downhill from there.

*

Neither side should be surprised at the angry reaction the proposition has engendered across California. The polls show that 187 is likely to win because most voters, including Latinos, think something has to be done to stop illegal immigration.

That's something the Spanish-speaking demonstrators who came to the Museum of Tolerance didn't seem to understand. They especially don't see the rage among white suburbanites who, among others, are the backbone of 187's support.

"I support immigration, but I'm damned, I mean damned , tired of illegal aliens overrunning us," one white woman at the debate told me.

And Ezell truly seems mystified as to why some Latinos see 187 as a racist threat. He seems to discount the role illegal immigration has played in establishing the roots of many Mexican families throughout the Southwest. While Latinos don't support illegal immigration, the mere mention of the subject these days evokes a reaction akin to defending one's sainted grandmother from Chihuahua.

Them's fightin' words!

As I said, there wasn't any tolerance at the debate, no chance to understand the other side. The demonstrators and Ezell left early, citing various excuses for ducking out.

For the 350 in the audience who stayed to listen and hiss, there were some points about SOS to discuss.

For example, opponents were reluctant to say what they would propose to curb illegal immigration if, as they say, 187 is not the answer. Alan Nelson, who headed the U.S. immigration service during the Reagan years and was part of the debate panel, kept prodding them to acknowledge that there is an illegal-immigration problem.

They admitted that but repeated their spin by saying "all federal immigration laws on the books" should be enforced. Visiting Occidental professor Richard Rothstein did offer that U.S. immigration quotas for unskilled workers should be increased and that labor standards should be enforced.

Debate moderator Howard Miller, who has faced his share of hostile crowds from his days on the L.A. school board, noted the reluctance and wondered aloud if that hurt the anti-187 cause.

On the other hand, Miller pressed Nelson about why the measure allows authorities to check on the residency status of the parents of a child who is a U.S. citizen and is exempt from 187's penalties. "It's a matter of common sense to ask the parents to verify their status so it's on the record," Nelson replied.

But why? Miller asked. "Are they deported? What then happens is not set out (in the proposition)."

Miller also went to the heart of the anti-187 argument, noting that "reasonable suspicion"--the standard to be used to figure out residency status--isn't explained in the measure or by its advocates. The other side quickly seized on that to convey its contention that 187 is racist.

"What is reasonable?" anti-187er Ted Green asked. "Is it the color of your skin? The sound of your voice? Is it the number of vowels in your last name? There must be safeguards. . . ."

*

Ezell knows I hate Proposition 187. But that didn't stop him from calling the next day to see what I thought of the debate high jinks.

We went back and forth, hammering each other. Ezell did say that Prince's "SOS is the rope" comment was out of line.

When we finished chatting, I realized I couldn't take another word on 187. I don't like what it's done to us.

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