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Complex Family Ties Tangle Simple Premise of Prop. 187 : Immigrants: Impact includes problems of splitting up parents, children and spouses of mixed legal status.

November 20, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For sponsors of Proposition 187, the issue is simple: Illegal immigrants, by definition lawbreakers, should be denied public services and promptly turned in to authorities. Those who do not volunteer to leave should be swiftly deported.

"Illegal aliens have no right to be here," said Ron Prince, chairman of the Proposition 187 campaign.

But for Dora Figueroa and many of the other estimated 1.7 million unlawful immigrants in California, the situation is much more complicated.

Most undocumented people are closely related to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, often wives, husbands, parents, siblings or children. Many are in the process of seeking papers, usually via spouses or other relatives who are legal residents entitled to petition for loved ones under the principle of family reunification, long a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy.

Mass deportation would inevitably mean the splitting of hundreds of thousands of families, including many whose members are on official waiting lists for green cards. Immigration today is very much a family affair, assisted and encouraged by networks of relatives well-established in the United States.

In the case of Figueroa, she is the wife of a lawful permanent resident and the mother of a 2-year-old boy, Michael Scott, a U.S. citizen. She is 8 months pregnant with another child.

"My life is here now," said Figueroa, who slipped across the U.S.-Mexico border four years ago, completing what has become a rite of passage for millions of extended families, an exodus that redefined California's demographics--and has triggered an angry backlash among the voting majority. "What scares people most is the idea of being separated from their families, from their children."

Whatever Proposition 187's fate in the courts, the essentially familial nature of immigration--combined with the limited capabilities of an overtaxed immigration bureaucracy--weigh against any large-scale repatriations, such as the mass return of Mexican nationals during the anti-immigrant campaigns of the 1930s and 1950s.

"How can I leave? My children are American," said Tammy (she asked that her surname not be used). Tammy, her husband, Haim, and three young children arrived from Israel seven years ago and opted to overstay their visitors' visas, never going back.

Those who overstay their visas, who make up at least half of the illegal immigrants nationwide, face the same problem as those who jump the border. The families of undocumented Europeans, Canadians, Asians and others who violated their entry visas include many U.S.-born children or relatives awaiting legal status via relatives or through other applications.

"My little girls wouldn't know what the Philippines is like," said one undocumented Los Angeles mother of six children, of whom only the two youngest are U.S. citizens. Neither of the two speaks Tagalog, the language of their ancestral homeland.

If the courts uphold Proposition 187, she and others could be turned in as suspected illegal immigrants by educators at their children's schools, by health workers and social service providers, and by police officers who may stop them for a traffic violation.

Yet the woman, like most illegal immigrants interviewed, said she had no intention of returning to her homeland voluntarily--the "self-deportation" process that Proposition 187 advocates hope will unfold.

In the event she is reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, arrested and forced to return, Dora Figueroa, for one, vows to be back quickly.

"I'll go down and bring her back myself," said her husband, Daniel Gomez, as he and his wife relaxed on a recent evening in their apartment on Los Angeles' Eastside, one of the nation's most populous new-immigrant enclaves.

In the last 15 years or so, scholars say, immigration from Mexico and Central America--by far the principal homelands of California's undocumented multitudes--has become more of a deeply rooted, family-driven phenomenon. Long gone is the era when most were migrant men following the harvests and returning annually to their families in Mexico.

"When I first came here, I thought I would work for a while, save some money, and then go back to Mexico," Gomez said. "But as time goes on, that is more and more of an illusion."

A onetime illegal immigrant, Gomez obtained U.S. residency via the amnesty program of 1987-88, a sweeping law that conferred legal status on 3 million formerly undocumented residents, almost three-quarters of them Mexican nationals. It was the world's largest immigration amnesty, and its consequences were far-reaching, particularly for California, home of more than half of all amnesty beneficiaries.

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