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Some Foes of Prop. 187 Now Preach Compromise

Politics: The new stance by those lawmakers reflects Latinos' differing attitudes toward immigration.

May 11, 1999|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo seems to be the last person who would budge in his opposition to Proposition 187.

Before the Los Angeles Democrat became a legislator, he helped orchestrate a 1994 march that drew 150,000 protesters against the initiative to restrict education and health care for illegal immigrants. After voters approved Proposition 187, Cedillo joined a legal challenge that resulted in a federal judge ruling most of the measure unconstitutional.

But now, with that ruling pending in a federal appeals court, Cedillo and several other Southern California Latino legislators who opposed Proposition 187 are preaching compromise. They support Gov. Gray Davis' decision to put the nearly five-year legal dispute over the law before a federal court mediator.

This new stance illustrates the seesaw of politics and principle engendered by the initiative that for many Latinos defined the changing landscape of California during the 1990s.

It also speaks to the varying attitudes toward legal and illegal immigration among the state's diverse Latino electorate, a fifth of whom voted for Proposition 187.

"We all have different perspectives, based on where we're at and what our constituencies are," Cedillo said of the state's 24 Latino legislators.

Davis angered many Latino leaders when he announced last month that he would put the fate of Proposition 187 in the hands of a federal mediator. Former Gov. Pete Wilson had initiated the appeal of the trial court ruling gutting Proposition 187, and many presumed Davis would kill the law he vilified during his campaign.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was the first Latino official to break ranks with the Democratic governor over the decision. "This is a core issue of conscience," he said. "Proposition 187 is the center part of that mean-spirited politics."

But Cedillo's group, several of whom are from suburban districts, say more than principle is involved. There are practical and political considerations for siding with Davis and seeking resolution to the most talked-about initiative since the landmark property tax rollback, Proposition 13.

Perhaps there is something, the group says, that can be salvaged to satisfy voters who passed Proposition 187 by a 59% majority. With Davis--who opposed the initiative--in the role of proponent, they say there is little to lose in mediation.

Besides, said Cedillo, "Our point of view is that it isn't just a legal question anymore. It's a broader question of how we will all live together in California, how [immigrants] get integrated, and how we as a community can go forward."

A few Latino lawmakers are also mindful of how their views will resonate with constituents. In such middle-class regions as the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, some fear alienating non-Latino voters, as well as some Latinos.

Assemblyman Thomas Calderon (D-Montebello), who represents second- and third-generation Mexican Americans in Montebello, Norwalk and Pico Rivera, said his response to Proposition 187 has been tempered because of the thorny problems created by illegal immigration.

"We need to get real," Calderon said. "There will always be an influx from Mexico, so let's deal with it."

Henry Valdez is one of the Latinos who voted for Proposition 187. The second-generation Mexican American and registered Republican from the San Fernando Valley wants Davis to pursue Wilson's appeal of the initiative.

"We should let the courts sort out the questionable language," said Valdez. He opposes the denial of health and education benefits to illegal immigrants but supports some aspects of the law.

As the Latino community grows, Valdez said, it must discard its sentimental view of illegal immigration, understanding that there are not enough resources for those entitled to live here.

Tirso del Junco, a Cuban American and Proposition 187 supporter, agrees. "How else are we going to provide legal immigrants, the ones who stood in line and waited for years to come to the United States, a bigger piece of the pie? We don't have enough resources."

Opponents Have Little to Lose

The governor's office is tight-lipped about what it hopes to negotiate. But anti-187 forces appear to have little to lose.

Four of the law's components were found unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer in a 1997 ruling, largely because they are covered by federal law or previous Supreme Court rulings. They include restrictions on public education, health care and welfare benefits, as well as requiring that teachers and police report suspected illegal immigrants.

Pfaelzer ruled as acceptable the remaining provision, which makes the manufacture or use of false citizenship documents a state felony. Because Pfaelzer will have the final say in any settlement under federal mediation rules, the two sides will probably use her ruling as a guide.

Peter A. Schey, one of the lead attorneys in the fight against Proposition 187, said he does not oppose the felony document provision, which is already being enforced.

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