Magazine article The Christian Century

Immigrant Bashing: Proposition 187

Magazine article The Christian Century

Immigrant Bashing: Proposition 187

Article excerpt

In the western states where the populist movement had great influence, the most enduring reform of the movement was the popular initiative. In this form of direct democracy the people themselves--not their corrupt representatives, bought and paid for by bankers and robber barons--actually make the laws. But contemporary democratic--minded people may shudder at what the initiative process produced last November in California, when the voters overwhelmingly (59 to 41 percent) adopted Proposition 187. This state initiative would deny public funds for schooling or nonemergency medical care to any alien who is not in this country in conformity with immigration law.

Within hours of its passage, Proposition 187 faced a stiff challenge to its constitutionality in state and federal courts. In 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that Texas could not expel the children of undocumented immigrants from public schools. Relying on this decision, San Francisco Superior Court judge Stuart R. Pollak has stopped the initiative's education ban from taking effect.

In Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer also issued an order prohibiting most aspects of the measure from being implemented. She ruled that the measure's ban on nonemergency health care and social-welfare services for "illegal immigrants" are unconstitutional because the Constitution gives authority over immigration exclusively to Congress, not to the legislatures or the people of the several states. California cannot, of course, deny entry to Mexicans or other people from Central and South America. In Edwards v. California (1941) the U.S. Supreme Court stopped California from denying entry to out-of-state indigents such as the "Okies" moving westward from the dust bowl. The Supreme Court now may have to rule on whether California may do indirectly through Proposition 187 what it could not do overtly in the 1930s: stop the influx of unwanted immigrants.

But what if, as some now urge, Congress itself were to get into the immigrant-bashing act? Could it do on a national scale what California has tried to do on a state level? Though the Constitution clearly gives authority over immigration to Congress, the case law does not allow this provision to escape the general command of equality.

The mere fact that a statute is constitutionally permissible, moreover, does not mean that it is wise to enact it. There are several reasons why Congress should not emulate California. Even if we were to assume that the purpose of such legislation is lawful, the means chosen by the California initiative and by various federal proposals are ill-fitted to achieve their end. Though denying children schooling may make parents reconsider entering the U.S. illegally, what about the many who are already here? How does taking kids out of school keep their parents from having crossed a border illegally? Disastrous social consequences flow from depriving children of education: underemployment and greater marginalization, leaving these children no motive for or means of fitting into society. Gangs then beckon as an alternative means of survival.

Nor is there any legitimate connection between the costs of providing medical care to immigrants and the legality of their status as citizens or resident aliens. …

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