Ventura County immigrant-rights advocates and Latino leaders cheered a federal court ruling Monday that guts key provisions of Proposition 187, but supporters of the landmark immigration measure said the decision is just the first round of a legal battle that they believe ultimately will uphold the intent of voters.
A year after voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer struck down major portions of the statewide initiative, saying that the ability to regulate immigration belongs solely to the federal government.
"Justice has prevailed so far," said Armando Garcia, chairman of the Ventura County Immigrant Rights Commission and a leader in an unsuccessful effort last year to defeat the measure on the November, 1994, ballot.
"In a sense," Garcia added, "the judge heard the voice of the people, in that the job of controlling the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States has to be in the hands of the federal government, not in the hands of Pete Wilson or the state of California."
But Steve Frank, who headed the Ventura County campaign in support of the measure, said the people voiced their opinion last year at the ballot box and that the message was loud and clear: Citizens are fed up with illegal immigration and they want something done about it.
"In this case, the judge decided she didn't care about the will of the people or the law," said Frank, adding that he believes the measure is destined for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It once again validates the view that the courts have no concern for the citizens," he said. "But this court decision is only going to harden the position of the supporters of Proposition 187."
It had been a long time since the last major flare-up over the controversial initiative, which is aimed at cutting health care, public education and other benefits to illegal immigrants.
In the months before the election, hundreds of Ventura County college and high school students walked out of classes in mass protests against the measure. There were rallies and hunger strikes in opposition to the initiative.
But despite the public displays of discontent, county voters decisively supported the measure at the polls.
In Ventura County, Proposition 187 won 65% of the vote, a margin six points greater than the initiative gained statewide. There was no city in the county where the measure was defeated, including Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore, which all have majority Latino populations.
But in a 72-page ruling Monday, Pfaelzer undid a lot of what voters had done.
Pfaelzer ruled that federal law preempts the state from excluding illegal immigrants from schooling, health care and other social services. Moreover, she ruled that the initiative's provisions for reporting illegal immigrants to federal authorities constituted an unlawful state scheme to regulate immigration.
However, she also ruled that the section of Proposition 187 that excludes illegal immigrants from public colleges and universities is not, on its face, invalid, and that state voters may have the right to deny illegal immigrants state-funded health care and other services.
Ventura County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis said Pfaelzer's decision is good news for school administrators, saying that the proposition would have required school officials to become quasi-agents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"I'm pleased because we won't have to spend educational dollars doing the job of the INS or the border patrol," Weis said.
Wendi McCoy, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at De Anza Middle School in Ventura where 70% of the students are Latino, said she is also relieved that educators will not spend time ferreting out illegal immigrants.
"It would have given me the terrible role of [being a] police officer in my classroom," said McCoy, noting that while she agrees with parts of the measures, she believes all children should have a chance at an education. "Students would be afraid of me. I can't imagine saying, 'No, you can't learn this stuff. I can't teach you.' The thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Simi Valley teacher Peggy Noisette said educators should never be put in the position of trying to identify children who are in the country illegally.
"We have lots of kids from all over," said Noisette, a 33-year veteran who teaches at Valley View Junior High in Simi Valley. "And that's the scary thing about 187. It's almost like it was targeting students with Spanish surnames. That's unfair and that's un-American."
But Chuck Johnson, a Fillmore rancher and former school board member, said he hopes the federal government will now move to create a national identity card that can be used to keep illegal immigrants from receiving a free public education.