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Wilson Proposes U.S. Version of Prop. 187 : Immigration: He urges Congress to enact similar measures. But lawmakers are likely to move cautiously.

November 19, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Gov. Pete Wilson, fresh from his resounding reelection victory, proposed Friday that Congress adopt a federal version of California's controversial Proposition 187, which would deny all benefits except emergency medical care to illegal immigrants.

In a confident address to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Wilson said that the new Congress should either fully reimburse states for the cost of education and medical services to illegal immigrants or seek to end the requirements that they provide such services at all.

"I don't think it is proper for federal or state taxpayers to pay the costs of those services," Wilson said, "so my preference is to end the services."

At the same time, Wilson expressed support for a new program to import temporary "guest workers" from Mexico--an idea that traditionally has enjoyed strong support from California agricultural interests but in the past has been resisted by the kind of illegal immigration critics who worked with Wilson to pass the 187 initiative.

In his wide-ranging remarks, Wilson again denied interest in seeking the 1996 presidential nomination, said that Republicans should pass authority over welfare to the states rather than attempt to rewrite the program in Washington, urged Congress to pass the new world trade agreement later this month and sharply denounced the Mexican government's criticism of Proposition 187.

"I think the Mexican government should really butt out of the internal affairs of the United States," Wilson said.

As he arrived at the Heritage Foundation, Wilson was greeted by a noisy throng of anti-Proposition 187 protesters who carried signs accusing him of fomenting racism. "Pete Wilson: The George Wallace of The '90s," read one placard.

"As Pete Wilson comes to Washington to step onto the national stage, we want the national Republican Party to know he comes with some serious baggage," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group that organized the demonstration.

Wilson said suggestions that the proposition is racist or anti-immigrant are "insulting to the people of California who voted for it."

With his address, which drew a throng of reporters, Wilson clearly signaled that he intends to push the Proposition 187 message onto the national stage. He indicated that in addition to lobbying Congress he also will work with other states interested in passing similar laws. That effort promises to widen a rapidly sharpening fault line in conservative ranks.

Though most national Republican leaders supported the California measure, it drew intense fire from several conservative leaders--including former Cabinet secretaries Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett, leading GOP strategist William Kristol and representatives of several conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation--which condemned it as a "big brother" expansion of government power.

Bennett and Kemp have scheduled a news conference for next Monday with Linda Chavez, a former top civil rights official in the Ronald Reagan Administration, to push alternatives to the benefits cutoffs Wilson advocates.

Wilson did not specify exactly what a federal version of Proposition 187 would look like. But in his remarks he suggested that any federal action should be based on the measure's provisions to cut off educational and non-emergency medical services to illegal immigrants. In California, Proposition 187 faces numerous legal hurdles, and most of its provisions have been temporarily blocked by a federal judge pending further review by the courts.

Congress may have only limited maneuvering room to affect such benefits, however. Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for federal welfare and food stamps. Congress has required states to provide emergency medical care to illegal immigrants, but Proposition 187 leaves this undisturbed. The measure cuts back on non-emergency services provided through state funds.

The California initiative also attempts to remove illegal immigrants from public schools. But any effort to expand that on a national basis would face the same hurdle now confronting Proposition 187: the 1982 Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution requires states to educate illegal immigrants. Ultimately, the Supreme Court would have to approve any congressional effort to reverse that decision, experts say.

Wilson said that he has spoken with both incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and likely Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and that each indicated support for steps to reduce the cost to states of illegal immigrants. In comments to reporters after their meeting Thursday night, Gingrich said he believes that "the best response is to eliminate the mandates (to provide services) because the welfare magnet (is) drawing people into the United States."

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