Passage of Calif. immigration curb stirs up friends, foes around country


The buttons shipped from Don F. Barrington's Arizona apartment are popping up on lapels from New Mexico to Minnesota to Florida. In patriotic red, white and blue they offer a solution to the country's immigration crisis -- USA 187.

JoAnn Peart received hers about two weeks ago. She has never met Mr. Barrington. But the mother of two from Delray Beach, Fla., and the disabled veteran from Tucson share a common goal: a national moratorium on immigration. And they support referendum movements in their home states that would ban services for illegal aliens.

The success of Proposition 187 in California has spurred to action citizens groups on both sides of the issue. Committees have been formed in Arizona and Florida to bring an anti-immigration measure to referendum in 1996.

In Texas, immigration activists have formed a group to defeat such an initiative -- even though Texans don't yet have the right to petition to referendum.

"Because of California 187, there is awareness all over the country that there hasn't been before," said Mrs. Peart. "People are pouring in here daily, and it's becoming apparent to people. It's really unbelievable. Somebody called our borders 'cheesecloth borders,' and that's what I think it is."

National groups also are watching anti-immigration movements in Colorado and Washington state. Robert Kiley, one of the architects of California's winning initiative, said he had received calls of interest from Oregon, Illinois, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Vermont.

A recent Harris Poll indicated that the public's attitude on immigration "has become somewhat more hostile" since 1992. For example, 74 percent of those surveyed believed that immigrants used more than their share of government services, compared to 62 percent in 1992.

Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Proposition 187 shows that an initiative can "send a political message."

In his budget proposal, President Clinton backed the adding of more than 500 agents to the 4,300-member Border Patrol. But that may not be enough to assuage public sentiments.

"In the absence of concerted, meaningful federal action in the next two years . . . we could easily see more initiatives on the ballot," Mr. Stein predicted.

If the outcome of the California referendum sent a message, it also rang alarm bells, especially in Texas, where Hispanics account for 26 percent of the population. Bills are pending in the state legislature that would allow voters to petition an issue to referendum. Some sponsors say the bills have nothing to do with anti-immigrant fever.

But Jaime Martinez and others don't want to take chances. A union organizer from San Antonio, Mr. Martinez has helped form the Texas Committee Organized to Defeat Proposition 187.

"We feel it was not wise to sit back and let Proposition 187 knock on our door and get shoved down our throats," said Mr. Martinez, whose group has planned an immigration solidarity march in San Antonio Feb. 25. "We're worried that anyone who looks foreign will be subject to discrimination. I'm an American. I was born in the United States, and I don't want to carry an ID to identify myself. And I don't want my children to carry an ID card."

Susan Maxwell, director of a legal assistance program for immigrants in Houston, said colleagues in California underestimated the momentum of Proposition 187. "We don't want it to get to the point where they are out there collecting signatures," Ms. Maxwell said of a possible 187-type movement. Although the California initiative passed overwhelmingly, it has not been carried out because its constitutionality has been challenged in the courts. The measure would ban illegal immigrants from using public schools and public health and social services.

According to the National Immigration Forum, about 1.1 million immigrants arrive in this country annually. About 300,000 are illegal aliens. More than 85 percent of the immigrants are here legally, according to the forum.

Immigration activists say they recognize the public's frustration with illegal immigration. But proposals like Proposition 187 won't solve the problem, they insist.

"Instead of pressing the federal government to do something serious, they are trying to convince the voters of their state [to support an initiative] that most people agree is ineffective," Frank Sharry of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum said of the California measure.

Arizona and Florida are the two states where Proposition 187-type activity is under way.

In Florida, the Orlando-based Save Our State Committee already has an address and a letterhead. Doug Guetzloe, the group's founder, brought Mr. Kiley, the California activist, to North Florida last month at his own expense. Mr. Guetzloe said the Florida measure would mimic California's but delay its implementation for six months to a year to allow illegal aliens to become legal residents or workers in the United States.

While 59 percent of California voters approved Proposition 187, Mr. Guetzloe and others predicted that Floridians would pass a similar measure by 75 percent.

"The state of Florida is spending in excess of $1 billion a year for social services for 375,000 illegal aliens, as of 1994," said Mr. Guetzloe, a public relations consultant. "Florida can't even take care of its own people. We have homeless. We have jobless. We have children who are not getting health care. . . . They must come first. It's that simple."

Mr. Gueztloe's group is now writing the referendum question, and must gather 430,000 signatures to place the measure on the ballot in 1996.

"America has ceased to become the cornucopia for the world. We do not have unlimited resources. That is the point that needs to be underscored," he said.

That may be the sentiment of some Floridians. But immigration activists in South Florida don't believe a Proposition 187-type measure will find support among Florida's large Hispanic population. Of the state's 12.9 million people, 12 percent are Hispanic. "There are many active Hispanic voters in the state, and I think people are recognizing that it doesn't solve the problems, that it creates more problems than it solves," said Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration lawyer. "The solution is greater enforcement on the border and not [to] take an 8-year-old kid and throw him out on the streets."

Mr. Sharry of the National Immigration Forum said immigration activists in Florida, Arizona and Texas should count their blessings because their governors oppose Proposition 187-type measures.

"You cannot underestimate the importance of Governor [Pete] Wilson legitimizing this issue in California," said Mr. Sharry. "Of the five reasons Proposition 1987 passed, the first three are Pete Wilson."

Florida's Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. may oppose a 187-type measure. But he long ago recognized the financial impact of a failed national immigration policy.

Last year, Mr. Chiles unsuccessfully sued the federal government to reclaim $2.5 billion that Florida contends it spends on services for immigrants. Of that amount, $884 million was spent on services for illegal aliens, the governor said. The suit was thrown out of court.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad