Los Angeles Times
Saturday, November 15, 1997
Prop. 187 Found Unconstitutional by Federal Judge
Law: Decision means anti-illegal immigration measure won't be
implemented, barring appeal. But initiative's supporters condemn outcome,
plan plea to higher court.
By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL, Times Staff Writer
A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled Friday that Proposition 187, the
divisive 1994 ballot initiative targeting illegal immigrants, violates
both the Constitution and last year's sweeping congressional overhaul of
The ruling effectively means that, barring
a successful appeal, the controversial measure that focused attention nationwide
on the problem of illegal immigration will never be fully implemented.
"Proposition 187, as drafted, is not
constitutional on its face," Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer declared in
a 32-page opinion.
Although observers had long anticipated the
finding, much of the judge's decision turned on a relatively new law--last
year's sweeping congressional reform of the federal welfare system, known
as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
of 1996. Proposition 187 served as a catalyst for many of that law's far-reaching
restrictions on benefits for immigrants, those here legally as well as
The 1996 welfare statute, the judge ruled,
"serves to reinforce" her prior finding that Proposition 187
is a "scheme" designed to regulate immigration, an exclusively
federal domain. State officials seeking to restrict immigrant access to
benefits must live by the guidelines outlined in the new federal law, she
"California is powerless to enact its
own legislative scheme to regulate immigration," Pfaelzer said. "It
is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien
access to public benefits."
The judge cited as unlawful the initiative's
major sections--those barring illegal immigrants from receiving publicly
funded education, social services and health care--along with provisions
mandating that local law enforcement authorities, school administrators,
social workers and health care aides turn in suspected illegal immigrants.
However, the judge did let stand two less
controversial sections that establish state criminal penalties for the
manufacture and use of false documents to conceal immigration status.
The judge requested that attorneys submit
additional motions by Nov. 28, but lawyers on both sides of the issue said
the decision clearly signals that she will soon issue a permanent injunction
to replace the existing temporary ban. The final order could come by the
end of the year, attorneys said.
At that point, the battle surrounding the
disputed measure will move to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where
Gov. Pete Wilson and other Proposition 187 supporters are expected to seek
a rebuke of Pfaelzer's ruling. Most expect the matter to end up in the
Supreme Court, possibly as soon as next fall.
"This is the tombstone for Proposition
187," said Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Southern California, co-counsel in the case against the initiative.
Although they condemned the judge's ruling,
proponents of Proposition 187 were relieved that the matter finally seemed
to be leaving the courtroom of Pfaelzer, whom Proposition 187 supporters
have excoriated as a biased jurist who sat on the case for more than three
years in a delaying tactic. Wilson even took the unusual step of filing
papers with the U.S. Court of Appeals this week demanding that the judge
take action--a move that anti-187 activists called a publicity stunt.
"We're free at last!" exclaimed
Ron Prince, the Orange County accountant who rose to national prominence
as a co-author of Proposition 187 and an advocate of tighter controls on
But he, Wilson, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren
and other supporters of the ballot initiative were highly critical of Pfaelzer's
decision to invoke last year's federal welfare overhaul as a major rationale
for throwing out Proposition 187. California authorities had argued the
exact opposite: that Proposition 187 was consistent with the federal legislation.
The passage of the welfare law last year
prompted some in the governor's office to predict that it opened the way
for the implementation of much of Proposition 187.
"I find that Judge Pfaelzer's interpretation
of Congress' intent when drafting the federal welfare law defies all logic,"
said Lungren, a former ranking House Republican on immigration matters.
Added Wilson: "Her analysis of Proposition
187 is as flawed and error-prone as the 1962 New York Mets. We look forward
to this measure going to a higher court that has a better understanding
of the law." But those fighting the ballot measure said the judge's
ruling was on target and would probably resist arguments on appeal.
"The judge has vindicated the principle
that we can't have 50 immigration policies, we can only have one,"
said Thomas Saenz, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense
and Educational Fund.
Other opponents delighted in the irony of
Pfaelzer using the federal welfare overhaul--a law championed by Wilson
and Republican leaders--as a legal battering ram against Proposition 187,
which also had strong GOP backing.
"Gov. Wilson has been hoisted on his
own petard," said Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional
Proposition 187 differs substantially from
the new federal welfare law passed last year. The California measure is
more restrictive in some respects and less stringent in others.
A major difference involves education. Proposition
187 would have barred illegal immigrants from attending public schools,
in clear violation of the Supreme Court's landmark 1982 Plyler vs. Doe
decision. The federal law contained no such ban.
In other arenas, Proposition 187 would have
made illegal immigrants ineligible for all publicly funded, nonemergency
medical treatment. The federal welfare law allows access to immunizations
and treatment of infectious diseases. Also, the federal law does not mandate
that local health care workers, educators and police inform on suspected
But, in some ways, the federal welfare law
went further. Proposition 187 focused only on illegal immigrants, while
the new federal statute makes many legal noncitizens ineligible for a host
of public benefits, including disability payments and food stamps. And
the federal law generally bars state and local governments from providing
nonemergency aid to "not qualified" noncitizens--a broad category
that encompasses both illegal immigrants and many categories of temporary
Responding to that federal mandate, the Wilson
administration is proceeding with new rules that will eventually make illegal
immigrants ineligible for hundreds of state services, from prenatal care
to business contracts to fishing licenses. Once in place, those restrictions
may represent one of the lasting legacies of Proposition 187, which arose
from the suburbs of Los Angeles at a time when massive immigration, especially
from Mexico and Central America, was drastically altering the region's
The movement was born in 1993 as the Save
Our State campaign, garnering support at the grass-roots level and receiving
technical assistance from a former commissioner and Western states chief
for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Proposition 187
did not take off in the public consciousness until the Republican Party
pumped money into a flagging signature-gathering effort and Wilson, then
in the midst of what seemed a tough reelection effort, made it a keystone
of his campaign.
Soon, Proposition 187 had galvanized voters
statewide and had gained more notoriety outside the state than any California
ballot initiative since the tax-cutting Proposition 13. Backers framed
the movement as a kind of salvation from rampant illegal immigration, while
critics denounced it as a racist effort to scapegoat immigrants, especially
Latinos. Three weeks before the election, more than 70,000 opponents, mostly
Latinos, marched through downtown Los Angeles in one of the largest protests
in city history.
On Nov. 8, 1994, California voters approved
the ballot measure by 59% to 41%, with substantial support from virtually
all groups except for Latinos and Jews. Federal judges soon blocked its
implementation. Subsequent efforts to launch copycat measures in Florida,
Arizona and Washington state never got off the ground, but the message
of Proposition 187 reverberated in 1996 in Congress, where lawmakers passed
several laws cracking down on illegal immigrants and their access to public
Times staff writer Dave Lesher in Sacramento
contributed to this story.