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The Error of Prop. 187 : Beware of the quick fix and the emotive sell

October 30, 1994

The United States is admired around the world for innovative and responsive government. Quick response indeed is often good, but wise governmental social policy is another matter. Wise policy is not made speedily, and certainly not in a heated election campaign. Good social policy incubates over time, cooks along with bipartisan support and is eventually embraced by almost all affected groups as necessary and fair.

Conversely, an unresponsive political structure ducks a problem, allows tensions to build and suddenly finds itself squeezed into action by pent-up voter resentment. When that happens, it lurches forward in a panicky direction. This is exactly what has happened with Proposition 187--the initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that seeks to drive illegal immigrants away by denying them, and their children, education and social services.

1. AREN'T DRASTIC MEASURES NEEDED?

If in fact the problems posed by illegal immigration are of such towering dimensions, past evidence suggests that drastic, blunt measures won't solve them. Proposition 187 would require an illegal-immigration surveillance system in the schools that is repulsive even to contemplate. It's ridiculous that Proposition 187 purports to be the magic bullet that would end a complex, longstanding problem. Trouble is, magic bullets tend to ricochet and hit unintended targets.

2. SO NOTHING CAN BE DONE?

There is plenty that can be done, should be done and now, finally, is being done. The federal government, asleep at the switch for years, is at last putting resources on the border; Gov. Pete Wilson, though horribly wrong to endorse Proposition 187, has been right to pound on Washington's door, along with many members of the California congressional delegation, demanding more federal aid to address a problem that is fundamentally a federal responsibility: international border control. So a wake-up call, as Proposition 187 is sometimes referred to, isn't needed. Everybody's awake. All 187 would do is make a difficult situation worse. It's not an alert but rather a sleep-inducing narcotic that will prolong the nightmare.

3. ISN'T 187'S POTENTIAL IMPACT EXAGGERATED?

Very probably not. School administrators would be required to peer into the faces of children and puzzle over their citizenship. How are they to separate the legal from the illegal? Are they going to question a blond, blue-eyed child who doesn't look like an "apparent illegal alien," to use 187's key phrase, even though she may be here illegally from Canada? Or will they question a dark-skinned, brown-eyed child who was born in this country but looks as if she might be from Latin America? This is the perniciousness, even terror, of Proposition 187.

The same problem would face doctors in public hospitals and clinics, who would be barred from providing all but the most urgent emergency services to illegal immigrants. To be sure, the demand for health services by non-citizens is a huge challenge. But the remedy that 187 offers would make a bad situation worse: deny them immunization and care for contagious but non-emergency diseases and you get the worst of both worlds--they stay here, and they're dangerously sick.

4. WHAT'S A BETTER WAY?

Keep moving in these directions: better border management; continued economic development in the "sending countries" to ease the social pressures that push their citizens to come here illegally; bilateral negotiations with the Mexican government to permit the orderly cross-border movement of temporary workers into agriculture and other industries in which they are needed, a change that would relieve a great deal of the stress on our southern border; and a tamper-proof Social Security card that would permit U.S. employers to have an almost foolproof way of knowing the citizenship status of its workers.

Don't pass Proposition 187, California. If it passes, all of us will regret it.

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