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Prop. 187 Key to Getting U.S. Aid, Wilson Argues


Gov. Pete Wilson said Friday that the only way California can get the federal government to pay for services to illegal immigrants living in the state is to pass Proposition 187 on the Nov. 8 ballot because "that's what it's all about."

The comment came as Wilson, who has inextricably linked his campaign for reelection to the controversial ballot initiative, sharply accused the Clinton Administration of playing politics with the issue. He specifically named Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and said he had never seen a national Administration "so flagrantly politicize the Department of Justice."

Once again Friday, illegal immigration dominated the debate in the governor's race. But as recent poll numbers have shown declining--though still strong--support for Proposition 187 among California voters, Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown have shifted the emphasis of their remarks on the measure, which would deny education and health benefits to illegal immigrants.

Brown has moved much more aggressively to attack Wilson on Proposition 187 and again proposed Friday that she and Wilson meet a second time in face-to-face debate--with illegal immigration the only question. She proposed the debate, quickly rejected by Wilson, for Tuesday night, one week before Election Day.

Wilson, meanwhile, has been refining his rhetoric on Proposition 187 to focus increasingly on using the measure as a tool to get the federal government to pay for the state's costs for benefits to illegal immigrants.

By framing the issue around who pays for the services, rather than about services being denied, the Republican governor avoided saying Friday that Proposition 187 includes nothing about who should pay for any services provided to illegal immigrants.

Proposition 187 says simply that illegal immigrants are not eligible for any public services except emergency health care and it establishes mechanisms for state employees and school workers to report those suspected of being illegal immigrants.

Even if the measure passes and is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which Wilson has predicted would occur, there is no mechanism either in the initiative or at the court's disposal to force the President and Congress to appropriate money to California.

Dan Schnur, the Wilson campaign spokesman, acknowledged that that is the case. However, he said the political momentum of a successful ballot measure would pressure Washington to compensate the state for services to illegal immigrants, which Wilson puts at more than $3 billion a year.

Even though his comments Friday focused on making the federal government pay for services, the Wilson campaign continues to air television commercials that show grainy black-and-white images of people presumably running across the border ahead of patrol agents. "They keep coming," the announcer droned during an earlier ad.

After Brown proposed another debate Friday, Schnur rejected the proposal, saying, "Pete Wilson already debated Kathleen Brown on the subject of illegal immigration and Pete Wilson won."

When Brown was told about Wilson's comments on the Clinton Administration politicizing the issue, she retorted: "(Wilson) in fact has cynically manipulated the issue of Proposition 187, trying to fool the voters of California about what it means to each and every man, woman and child in the state."

Reno has opposed Proposition 187 and the Justice Department issued an unofficial opinion Thursday that raised doubts about its constitutionality, noting that it was very similar to a Texas law that was struck down in 1982 on a 5-4 vote.

Wilson said Friday, "Atty. Gen. Reno, I think, has been guilty of politics from Day 1 on this issue. This Administration has sought to interject itself in a state issue."

Proposition 187 has become a polarizing lightning rod in the governor's race. Along with crime, Wilson has made it the key issue in his race. For months, political experts expected it to pass overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, Brown was talking mostly about a modest and relatively conservative economics program and trying to appear to be as tough as Wilson on crime.

In the last three weeks, as voters focused more keenly on ballot issues, Proposition 187's standing in the polls slipped significantly and Brown, sensing a strong tide surging to the "no" side, has hitched her campaign to it. She always opposed Proposition 187, but usually said little or nothing on it unless asked for comment.

Two items have caused Wilson political difficulty recently: the notion of barring children from school and the specter of some sort of national identity card that might have to be carried by every legal resident of the United States to get into school, or to qualify for free state social services.

Wilson has always indicated that he does not believe children ever would be kicked out of school because of the measure. But he said Friday that changes in the Supreme Court since the 1982 Texas decision make him believe the court would uphold Proposition 187.

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