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Point of Impact : Before It Has Even Come to a Vote, Proposition 187 Has Sent Shock Waves Through Central Los Angeles' Vast Immigrant Population and the Institutions That Provide for It.

November 06, 1994|Reporting this story were Times staff writers Efrain Hernandez Jr., Diane Seo and Yvette Cabrera, and correspondents Leslie Berestein, Enrique Lavin, Mary Anne Perez and Simon Romero. It was written by Hernandez

The young men selling fake identification documents at MacArthur Park are looking forward to a boom season, thanks to Proposition 187.

A couple of miles away, at H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center in South-Central, officials are worried. Staff members may be required to spend their time and resources trying to determine whether their patients are U.S. citizens.

And southeast of Downtown, at Huntington Park High School, a top student is waiting nervously to see if her dreams of studying engineering in college will be dashed because she is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

"I don't want my education to go to waste," said the 18-year-old senior. "A lot of people who are undocumented are very smart and very bright. They come here to succeed, not to cause trouble."

Yet many residents throughout Los Angeles, including the city's core, believe the measure can help improve living conditions by stemming illegal immigration.

Without question, the weight of Proposition 187--which would deny public services such as non-emergency health care and education to illegal immigrants--would land heavily in the heart of the Central City.

Nowhere else, activists and officials say, is the concentration of illegal immigrants found on such a scale as in places such as Downtown, Pico-Union, Westlake, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and South Gate. Perhaps one-fifth of the estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants living in California reside in the Central City or the Southeast area, activists say.

Illegal immigrant students fill local schools. Health clinics treat illegal immigrants of all ages. The garment industry and other businesses depend almost exclusively on low-wage laborers, many of them undocumented. And street vendors, some selling fruits or chips and others selling fake documents, frequently have entered the country illegally.

"In terms of numbers, no other area is going to be as impacted," said Fernando J. Guerra, associate professor of political science and Chicano studies at Loyola Marymount University. "But nobody is sure about how it will play out."

Although support for the measure has eroded as Election Day approaches, recent polls indicate that about half of all likely voters favor the initiative, with a small but potentially crucial number undecided. Proponents acknowledge that Proposition 187 may intensify hard times for many local families, but they are so frustrated by illegal immigration that they are convinced something drastic must be done immediately. They say legal residents deserve better services for their tax dollars.

"I feel strongly about the fact that (illegal immigrants) are here getting services. I don't feel it's fair to people who come here legally or were born here, like myself," said Bill Baum, 71, a South Gate resident for 53 years who was born in East Los Angeles.

At El Rescate, a community agency in Pico-Union, officials said the threat of Proposition 187 has already scared away some illegal immigrants.

"There are people who are making whatever arrangements they can to leave the country," said Jaime Flores, the agency's social services director. "They ask if El Rescate will help financially for their return home, which we don't do. About 15 families have left the United States in the last two and a half months without waiting to see if Proposition 187 will pass."

Ron Prince, chairman of the campaign known as Save Our State, argues that illegal residents are bound to leave California because of the initiative. Los Angeles is one of the cities that could benefit most from such changes, he said.

"The point of the initiative is to ensure that public services are provided to legal residents," Prince said. "Presently we are denigrating the quality of services."

But agencies that would be required by law to refuse services to illegal immigrants are expecting costs to shoot through the roof. And some activists warn that economic opportunities in the city would decrease even further.

"Just imagine what would happen to the garment industry," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, executive director of One Stop Immigration & Educational Center. "It's sweat labor. Who would take those jobs?"

To Gutierrez and others, Proposition 187 could easily lead to higher prices and even the loss of jobs as employers move away from the city.

"The snowball effect, in my opinion, would be catastrophic for the economy," he said.

For city youths, the measure could be especially jarring. The tension already generated by Proposition 187 has been vented in student walkouts and protest marches from Huntington Park to Chatsworth.

Officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District, although unable to tell how many of their 640,000 students are illegal, are convinced the measure would severely affect all youths.

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