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Kemp, Bennett and INS Chief Decry Prop. 187 : Campaign: Statements by GOP leaders, Clinton Administration official broaden opposition on two fronts.


WASHINGTON — Opening new fronts in the debate over Proposition 187, a ranking Clinton Administration official and two leading national conservatives Tuesday condemned the California ballot measure, which is aimed at cutting off public services to illegal immigrants.

Former Republican Cabinet secretaries Jack F. Kemp and William J. Bennett said in interviews that they will issue a statement today denouncing Proposition 187 as unconstitutional, contrary to conservative principles and likely to encourage discrimination against ethnic minorities.

"For some, immigrants have become a popular political and social scapegoat," the two men will say, according to a copy of the document provided to The Times. "But concerns about illegal immigration should not give rise to a series of fundamentally flawed, constitutionally questionable 'solutions' which are not consonant with our history."

Meanwhile, in a Tuesday appearance in Los Angeles, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner offered the strongest condemnation of the ballot measure to date from a Clinton Administration official. She maintained that Proposition 187 is based on a faulty premise: that social welfare benefits act as a magnet for illegal immigrants.

"We do not believe that the proposition is an effective way of enforcing the law against illegal aliens," she said at a news conference. "The incentives for illegal immigration are to work in the United States, not to sign up for welfare."

Although the White House never has taken a formal position on the controversial measure, Meissner's remarks amplified a steady drumbeat of opposition from leading Democrats and Clinton Administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. But the Kemp-Bennett statement marked the first significant opposition to the initiative from national Republican leaders.

The brusque rejection of Proposition 187 puts Kemp and Bennett directly at odds with Pete Wilson, California's Republican governor, who has strongly supported the measure and made opposition to illegal immigration a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. But beyond its impact on California, the Kemp-Bennett statement brings into the open the discomfort quietly expressed over the last year by a number of conservative thinkers about the GOP's hardening line against immigration.

Bennett served as education secretary under President Ronald Reagan and has emerged as a favorite of social conservatives, with his denunciations of illegitimate births and calls for cultural renewal. Kemp served as housing and urban development secretary under President George Bush and is considered a potential top-tier contender for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination. Both are now co-directors of the Washington-based think-tank, Empower America.

Joel Maliniak, a spokesman for the campaign against Proposition 187, said that the Kemp-Bennett statement demonstrates that opposition to the measure is broadening as its implications come into clearer focus. "This elevates it yet again to another level," he said.

But Harold Ezell, former INS western states director who helped write the measure, said that he doubts the Kemp-Bennett statement will change many minds. "These two guys have been sucked in by the Democratic Party line," he said. "Clinton must have written their press release."

Kemp and Bennett acknowledged that they are uncertain whether their statement will erode the overwhelming support for the ballot measure among conservatives and Republicans. In a Times poll earlier this month, the measure was favored 59% to 33% among likely voters statewide. Support was most intense among self-described Republicans (75%) and conservatives (72%).

But the two former Cabinet members said that they consider it important to condemn the measure, if only to discourage the party from emphasizing anti-immigrant themes elsewhere in the country and in the 1996 presidential campaign. "I am concerned that, if this passes in California, it will be introduced in other states and people will want to put it in the 1996 platform," said Kemp, who is traveling this week in California and will appear today at the Richard Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda. "It corrodes the soul of the party."

In their statement, Bennett and Kemp stressed that they oppose providing welfare benefits to illegal immigrants but noted that such benefits already are prohibited by law. In attempting to eliminate other public services for illegal immigrants, Bennett said, he and Kemp fear that the proposition will inspire a broader wave of "nativism" that could also produce a backlash against legal immigrants.

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