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PERSPECTIVE ON PROPOSITION 187 : Muddle Now Yields to Congress : Trashing most of a bad initiative will spur rewriting of the federal immigration act to stop illegal entry.

November 26, 1995|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Hard-core proponents of Proposition 187 are seething at U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer's decision to nullify most of the notorious anti-immigration initiative as unconstitutional. But she did them a big favor.

In tossing the most muddled and mean-spirited elements of the controversial initiative in the legal trash bin where they belong, Pfaelzer has virtually guaranteed that Congress will now finish rewriting the nation's immigration laws pretty much as most people who voted for Proposition 187 wanted--to stop illegal immigration. But Congress is likely to do a smarter, more balanced job of it than the assortment of political hacks and anti-immigrant wackos who threw Proposition 187 together.

That is what Proposition 187's more astute backers--like that smart hypocrite Gov. Pete Wilson--wanted all along. They hoped to create political momentum for immigration reform.

California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who wants to run for governor when Wilson's term ends, is in the best position to benefit from this latest turn of events. A former member of Congress who worked on immigration issues while on Capitol Hill in the 1980s, Lungren knows that any appeal on Proposition 187's behalf will take years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and still runs the risk of losing. Lungren should let immigration restrictionist groups waste their time and money on that process, while he and other California officials help work out a compromise on the immigration issue. The outlines of an immigration compromise are there.

The compromise starts with HR 2202, the hodgepodge immigration bill by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. As often happens when faraway Washington policy-makers react to a grass-roots issue like Proposition 187, Smith overdid it. His bill not only proposes tighter border controls and other measures to halt illegal immigration--on which there is wide consensus--but it mixes apples in with the oranges by trying to restrict legal immigration as well.

There is no consensus that legal immigration needs to be slowed, except among the fringe groups that see immigration as a greater threat to the nation than budget deficits, AIDS or global warming. That's why conservative Republican House members from California are demanding that measures affecting legal immigrants be taken out of HR 2202 and considered separately. That's an eminently sensible stance, although Smith has so far resisted efforts to break his bill up into its component parts.

But now a new player has entered the game, one Smith will have a harder time resisting because it is one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill: U.S. agribusiness.

Smith's subcommittee is quietly planning new hearings on HR 2202 in early December "in cooperation" with the House Agriculture Committee, according to several Capitol Hill sources. The prime movers in this process are two Californians who represent the state's Central Valley, Republican Richard W. Pombo of Tracy and Democrat Gary A. Condit of Ceres. Like Pete Wilson--and Dan Lungren, if he's smart--they listen when agribusiness talks.

Think back now to 1986, and the last great Immigration Reform and Control Act that Congress enacted. The process took almost 10 years, beginning when Gerald Ford was President and ending when Ronald Reagan was in his second term. The act would probably not have passed even in 1986 but for a big concession to agribusiness, a Special Agricultural Workers amnesty program that legalized more than 1 million immigrants. For comparison, the regular amnesty in the act legalized slightly fewer than 2 million.

So the Great Immigration Compromise of 1996--that's probably when it will happen--is taking shape. It involves more border control to cut down on illegal immigration and some form of guest worker program to meet farmers' labor needs.

Like Pfaelzer's decision to toss out most of Proposition 187, that compromise will drive hard-core immigration restrictionists nuts. But it gives the rest of us a compromise that could help calm the angry immigration debate that Proposition 187 symbolized. And it might even work.

Consider: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics indicate that 50% of the people arrested each year illegally crossing the border are Mexican nationals. So better border control combined with a Mexican guest worker program solves half of the "illegal alien problem." Even Proposition 187's most ardent backers couldn't guarantee that.

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