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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON PUBLIC POLICY

End the Politics of Vitriol and Division Over Immigration

Further pursuit of the misguided Proposition 187 won't build the mutual trust that California needs now.

April 18, 1999|ANTONIO R. VILLARAIGOSA | Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) is Speaker of the California Assembly

As public officials ushering in the new millenium, our challenge is to envision the New California and ask our fellow Californians to embrace what can be. It is a step that requires us to take a courageous leap of faith. We can leap together, and we can prosper together, but only if our laws and our human relationships uphold dignity, justice and respect for one and all.

This respect can only come through trust. And this trust can only be built by tempering the factors that tear us apart. Factors like Proposition 187.

The political fallout from the divisive politics created by Proposition 187 is still being felt in California. While a federal court invalidated many provisions of the measure, an appeal brought in the federal courts by former Gov. Pete Wilson was still lingering when Gov. Gray Davis took office in January. Faced with the unpleasant quandary of having to continue the appeal of Proposition 187 or drop the lawsuit altogether, Davis last week made the wrong choice. Although the governor and I agree that Proposition 187 is divisive and misguided, we have landed on opposite sides of the fence on how to resolve the issue.

Proposition 187 reflected the fears and anxieties of a rapidly changing society reeling from an economic downturn. In the early 1990s, middle-class aerospace workers abruptly lost their jobs, and the lucky ones began anew as retail clerks. Bank accounts were emptied, and dreams were downsized. Meanwhile, the neighborhood was taking on a whole new look as people of color moved to the suburbs and outlying areas.

These circumstances gave rise to a climate of scapegoating that peaked with Proposition 187 in 1994. Frustrated voters were deliberately misled into believing they could end illegal immigration with an angry electoral gesture. Thankfully, the 1998 election proved to be a more constructive venue for a dialogue on the culture wars. When we asked voters last November to embark down a path of unity in the new era, avoiding the wedge-issue politics that had been cynically used to divide California earlier in the decade, they responded by electing, for the first time in 16 years, a Democratic governor. They also increased the Democratic majorities in the Senate and the Assembly. The voters spoke and their voices were resounding: End the politics of vitriol and division. Focus on improving the quality of life for all Californians by improving schools, increasing access to health care and ensuring a better life for future generations. Togetherness versus divisiveness. Moderation versus extremism.

On Thursday, Gov. Davis and his advisors decided that he was legally obligated to continue the appeal of Proposition 187 but called for a formal mediation process instead of immediately forging ahead in court. While his interest in finding a middle course is laudable in the abstract, the alleged legal obligation upon which he based it is questionable.

The governor pointed to Article III, Section 3.5 of the California Constitution in making his decision. However, it prohibits "administrative agencies," not elected officials, from "declaring a statute unenforceable, or refusing to enforce a statute, on the basis of it being unconstitutional" until an appellate court says it is unconstitutional. This section of the Constitution was approved by the voters in 1978 in reaction to a controversial decision made by the Public Utilities Commission, an appointed administrative agency. The intent of the provision was as clear at the time, as it is now, and the governor is clearly not an appointed administrative agency.

I believe Proposition 187 was impractical, immoral and extremely bad public policy. I have strongly opposed it since the onset. The measure, although easily passed by the voters, was a cynical attempt to exploit ill will toward a disempowered segment of the population. While appearing to specifically target Latinos, this measure jeopardized the health and welfare of all immigrants from all nations, especially the children. Worse yet, it jeopardized everybody's health and welfare. Contagious diseases afflicting undocumented residents do not respect geographic, economic or ethnic boundaries; failing to treat them invites epidemics. And children categorically barred from attending school become a burden on society, no matter where they're from; failing to educate them invites ignorance, poverty and crime.

It is clear to me that Proposition 187 cannot solve our illegal immigration problem, but it surely would exacerbate other serious problems were it ever to be enforced.

In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law federal welfare reform and the federal illegal immigration act. These measures federalized certain provisions of Proposition 187, thus upholding the will of the electorate while recognizing the basic inalienable rights afforded every man, woman and child in California and the nation.

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