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Central City Seen as Proving Ground for Prop. 187


James Coleman is positive the approval of Proposition 187 was the best thing that could have happened to Los Angeles residents--make that legal residents.

Coleman, a longtime city activist, says the anti-illegal immigration initiative approved by voters on Election Day will eventually lead to brighter days for Los Angeles. The measure is tough in denying illegal immigrants public services such as education and non-emergency health care, but it is desperately needed if the quality of life in the city is to improve, he said.

"I think we're going to see a lot more smiles than frowns," said Coleman, a member of the Black Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. "There are no government-given rights to people who are here illegally. California is not going to pay for this stuff anymore."

Although Coleman was confident that Proposition 187 would be enforced, many other residents and officials in the Central City remained unsure of what changes may result from the measure.

Several legal challenges seemed to guarantee that at least for now, illegal immigrant students would remain in school, undocumented workers would keep their jobs, public health care would be available to all residents and law enforcement authorities would not press any harder than usual at cracking down on the sales of fake identification documents.

And for some opponents of Proposition 187, the disappointment caused by the election was tempered by the level of community activism generated during the past several weeks.

One immediate goal will be to build on the protest movement so that there is strength in fighting persistent problems such as discrimination or unfair labor issues, they said.

"I don't think that's going to go away," said Gilbert Cedillo, general manager of Local 660, Service Employees International Union, and an anti-Proposition 187 organizer. "This whole movement exploded. A tremendous foundation has been set."

The Central City, where activists and officials say the concentration of illegal immigrants is the greatest in the state, is expected to be a proving ground for Proposition 187. About one-fifth of the state's more than 1.5 million illegal immigrants live in places such as Downtown, Pico-Union, Westlake, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and South Gate, activists say.

Some illegal immigrants reacted to the Election Day results by saying they would leave the area, but many others said they would stay and continue to find ways to make money.

"Even if things are difficult here, many times they are much more difficult in the homelands," said one man who was trying to sell fake identification documents outside MacArthur Park. "Everyone has to do what they can to defend themselves and survive."

Besides the legal challenges, opponents of the measure found post-election support from various other institutions. The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to join in legal action to set aside Proposition 187 and directed city employees to provide services at least until the challenges are settled.

Cristine Soto, a student coordinator for the opposition forces, said a major accomplishment was the political mobilization of hundreds of city students. Many students were expected to remain active in helping to shape the city's future, she said.

"We realized that we can impact things," Soto said. "I think it's only going to encourage them to vote and do more. So, many more important things came out of it."

But Ira Mehlman, a Los Angeles spokesman for the main group that promoted the initiative, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he and other proponents were not discouraged by any movements that might block enforcement of Proposition 187. In the end, public services and jobs will be denied to illegal immigrants because officials will be required to carry out their duties and large numbers of illegal immigrants will end up back in their homelands, he said.

"187 is not the end of the process. It's the beginning of the process," Mehlman said. "Illegal immigrants came here for logical, rational reasons and they will leave for logical, rational reasons."

Coleman, who emphasized that his support for the measure did not stem from racism or mean-spiritedness, said the continuing drama surrounding the measure will help keep federal officials interested in ending the massive flow of illegal immigrants to California.

"This is going to ultimately help everyone," he said. "Then we can help our neighbors."

Still, Evangeline N. Ordaz, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said she was concerned that some residents may find themselves being mistreated by employers or low-level bureaucrats who view the initiative as an opening for abuse.

"It will be a tool that's there to kind of eat away at the civil rights that people have," Ordaz said. "I think the level of apprehension has risen 100%."

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