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Judge's Final Order Kills Key Points of Prop. 187

Courts: A permanent injunction is levied on the '94 measure targeting illegal immigrants' use of public benefits.

March 19, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge in Los Angeles has issued a final order forbidding implementation of the core provisions of Proposition 187, declaring that those parts of the controversial 1994 ballot initiative targeting illegal immigrants' use of public benefits are unconstitutional.

The widely anticipated action slapping a permanent injunction on the measure comes almost 3 1/2 years after California voters overwhelmingly approved it following a campaign that galvanized national attention on the issue of illegal immigrants' use of health care, schools and social services. Most of the law never took effect because court rulings temporarily blocked enactment.

The stage is now set for a round of appeals that many believe will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly as soon as next year.

Gov. Pete Wilson and other Proposition 187 proponents have accused U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer of dragging her feet on issuing the final ruling, thus delaying their appeals and determination of the measure's ultimate fate. But opponents of Proposition 187 said the lengthy review was understandable given the complexity of the case and the state's shifting strategies and sometimes contradictory arguments.

In her decision, made public Wednesday, Pfaelzer based much of her rationale on Congress' sweeping overhaul of welfare laws in 1996, including broad new restrictions on benefits for noncitizens--changes in part inspired by Proposition 187. The congressional action, the judge ruled, served to reinforce her conclusion that the Constitution gives the federal government exclusive domain in the immigration arena.

"California is powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration," Pfaelzer said in her 32-page decision. "It is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits."

The judge ordered copies of her decision to be sent to health care providers, school administrators, social service agencies, law enforcement offices and other affected government departments statewide.

In November, the judge issued a detailed decision outlining her belief that the central thrust of the initiative would not pass constitutional muster.

Pfaelzer did let stand two relatively minor parts of Proposition 187, strengthening penalties for the manufacture, distribution, sale or use of false documents for immigration purposes. Those provisions were never blocked from enactment into law.

Hit with a permanent injunction, however, were the measure's major sections--those barring illegal immigrants from receiving publicly funded education and most social services and health care. Also barred were provisions directing local law enforcement authorities, school administrators, social workers and health care aides to turn in suspected illegal immigrants.

Wilson, whose 1994 reelection campaign stressed his strong backing of Proposition 187, said Wednesday that state authorities would contest the judge's ruling before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The governor called the judge's reasoning fatally flawed, but he and other supporters expressed relief that the matter was finally heading onward.

"We are very pleased to finally be out of this purgatory in Pfaelzer's court," said Ron Prince, the Orange County accountant who was a coauthor of the initiative.

However, experts said a successful appeal in the 9th Circuit would probably have the practical effect of sending the matter back to Pfaelzer for consideration of other charges made by opponents. The judge never ruled on allegations that Proposition 187 violated equal protection and due process guarantees contained in the 14th Amendment.

Along with blocking enactment of most of Proposition 187, the judge's ruling renders irrelevant two state court challenges against the measure's provisions that would have barred illegal immigrants from attending public schools and colleges.

Opponents of Proposition 187 lauded the judge's ruling.

"The governor must feel like the captain of the Titanic," said Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "The chances of a successful appeal are about as good as the chances of Pete Wilson being elected president."

Still to be determined in the case is the issue of attorneys' fees. The battery of lawyers who led the fight against Proposition 187 in five separate lawsuits consolidated in Pfaelzer's courtroom are likely to seek reimbursement of more than $1 million in fees from the state.

Proposition 187, which emerged from the suburbs of Southern California as the "Save Our State" campaign, tapped into deep unease with the huge surge of immigration, mostly from Latin American and Asia, that drastically reshaped California's demographic makeup in the last two decades. Substantial aid from the Republican Party helped place it on the ballot. It became the most widely watched state initiatives since the tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978.

But Proposition 187 is also credited with motivating many longtime immigrants to become U.S. citizens and register to vote. The new voters' participation, analysts say, helped provide a cushion for President Clinton and other Democrats during the 1996 election races in California, Florida and other states with large immigrant populations.

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