In a stretch of desert just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, men and women in khakis and the colors of the American flag recently gathered at a border watch post they call Camp Vigilance and discussed their next offensive in the nation's immigration wars.
The target: Illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born children who receive public benefits.
The plan: a California ballot initiative that would end public benefits for illegal immigrants, cut off welfare payments for their children and impose new rules for birth certificates.
"We will be out in full force to qualify this initiative," said Barbara Coe, who helped develop Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that would have ended benefits to illegal immigrants but was ruled unconstitutional. "Illegals and their children are costing the state billions of dollars. It's invasion by birth canal."
Supporters of the initiative, recently unveiled by San Diego political activist Ted Hilton, hope to challenge the citizenship of children born in the United States to parents who are here illegally.
The 14th Amendment states that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside." Backers of the initiative argue that illegal residents are not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States and that, as a result, their U.S.-born children should not be citizens.
Before Hilton, Coe and their allies can argue that point in court, however, they have many hurdles to overcome. Whether the initiative will even make it to the ballot remains to be seen. Organizers have just begun to collect the 488,000 voter signatures required to qualify the measure for the June 2010 election. So far, Hilton said, they have raised about $350,000 -- far short of the $4 million generally needed to pay signature gatherers to get a statewide initiative over that hurdle.
But illegal immigration was a powerful political issue in the economic downturn of the early 1990s, and the initiative's backers hope it will be again. Hilton said the group is enlisting an "enormous volunteer base" for the signature gathering. His organization, Taxpayer Revolution, has gathered endorsements from elected officials, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), the American Legion California chapter and immigration restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA, Save Our State and Coe's California Coalition for Immigration Reform.
The drive coincides with decisions in several states -- including Oklahoma, Colorado Virginia, Arizona and Georgia -- to curtail medical care, mortgage loans, homeless shelter relief and other benefits for illegal immigrants amid the national economic downturn.
Officials estimate that California's 2.7 million illegal residents account for $4 billion to $6 billion of the state's roughly $105-billion budget. Most of those costs are associated with schools, prisons and emergency healthcare.
"Are we going to continue asking taxpayers to pay for these services when the state is completely out of money?" asked Hilton, who first rallied against illegal immigration two decades ago.
Most illegal residents contribute to the state through taxes and labor, but research indicates that the costs to state and local governments outweigh the additional tax revenue, at least in the short term.
The nonpartisan state legislative analyst's office says the measure could reduce costs by more than $1 billion a year if it survives legal challenges.
Peter Schey, a Los Angeles attorney who successfully challenged Proposition 187, said courts would almost certainly strike down the measure.
"This proposal . . . has no chance of surviving a constitutional challenge," he said. "It is plainly driven by racism and a desire to whip up xenophobia during difficult economic times for U.S. citizens."
Backers say, however, that they have carefully crafted the measure to avoid the legal pitfalls that doomed Proposition 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from receiving any public social services, education and nonemergency medical care. Voters approved it, 59% to 41%, but a federal judge ruled that the measure unconstitutionally usurped federal jurisdiction over immigration.
This time, backers worked with attorneys who have helped craft successful efforts to curtail benefits in other states.
The new measure does not claim any state authority to regulate immigration, said Mike Hethmon, an attorney with the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute who advised the initiative's authors. Instead, he said, it is based on federal authority delegated to the states to restrict access to benefits and verify applicants' eligibility.
Under the 1996 federal welfare reform law, illegal residents are barred from welfare, public housing, food assistance, unemployment aid and other federal benefits. California laws, however, allow illegal residents to receive some state and local benefits, including nonemergency medical care.