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Judge Upholds Curbs on Police-INS Cooperation

Border: Federal welfare reforms do not give state the power to implement Prop. 187 provisions, ruling says.

March 04, 1997|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The welfare and immigration overhauls passed by Congress last year do not give the Wilson administration the authority to implement Proposition 187 provisions bolstering cooperation between the INS and local government agencies, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer preserves for now the legal status of guidelines in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and elsewhere in the state limiting police cooperation with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

An injunction issued by Pfaelzer in 1995 has blocked implementation of most of Proposition 187, which sought to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants and to expedite reporting of "suspected" undocumented people to the INS. She ruled that the initiative was an illegal state "scheme" to regulate immigration, which is exclusively the domain of Washington.

Last year's congressional action had buoyed expectations in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson that the state would be able to implement key sections of Proposition 187. Both the welfare and immigration laws passed by Congress contained provisions designed to increase cooperation among local and state agencies and the INS, and the welfare law also included certain new reporting requirements.

Further raising the governor's hopes was Pfaelzer's ruling last fall that her 1995 injunction did not prevent the state from implementing new welfare-law mandates banning the state from providing prenatal care and other aid to illegal immigrants. Using the welfare overhaul as its legal rationale, California plans to remove tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from the prenatal care rolls by July 1.

But, on Monday, the judge blocked California's efforts to increase cooperation with the INS. Immigrant advocates have fought hard to limit such cooperation, voicing fears that police-INS collaboration makes many illegal immigrants hesitant to report crimes and come forward as witnesses.

At issue is wording in Proposition 187 requiring that police, social workers, educators, health professionals and other aid providers receiving government funding report "suspected" illegal immigrants to the INS and to the state attorney general's office. In addition, the measure mandated that all law enforcement agencies cooperate with the INS, and it voided any laws and regulations specifically limiting such cooperation.

The provisions arose from widespread frustration among Proposition 187 advocates that government agencies were not turning the names of suspected illegal immigrants over to federal authorities. Among Proposition 187's sponsors were several former high-ranking INS officials.

The Wilson administration contended that the new welfare and immigration laws passed by Congress last year changed the legal panorama.

"New federal welfare laws authorize, and even compel, states to report the presence of illegal immigrants to the federal government," Gov. Wilson said Monday in a statement.

Opponents of Proposition 187 did not dispute the state's authority to implement the new federal requirements.

And, during an hourlong hearing, Judge Pfaelzer stated clearly that the state was free to carry out the new federal mandates.

However, anti-Proposition 187 lawyers argued that reporting and cooperation actions envisioned in the state measure were completely different from those now outlined in federal law.

"The federal government exercising its exclusive power to regulate immigration is not the same as inviting or permitting the state of California to enact its own, independent legislation," said Thomas A. Saenz, attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who argued the case against the state. "This is the right decision."

But Wilson blasted the ruling as "inexplicable, inconsistent and irrational," adding: "It's a shame that a single federal judge is improperly refusing to allow clearly valid sections of Proposition 187 to operate."

In a related ruling, Judge Pfaelzer threw out a challenge to a Proposition 187 provision increasing penalties for the manufacture and distribution of false documents for immigration purposes. However, the judge indicated that she would be willing to hold a trial on a separate provision mandating new state penalties for the use of such false documents. The increased penalties for making, distributing or using false documents are already in effect, as the judge did not enjoin them in her 1995 ruling.

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