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Backers Predict Vote On Denying Schooling To Illegal Immigrants

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California backers of strong immigration restrictions claim to have gathered enough signatures to put on the November ballot a proposal to deny public schooling and nonemergency medical care to illegal immigrants.

If the signatures on the "Save Our State'' petition are certified by state officials, voters will consider the measure, which has won the endorsement of Gov. Pete Wilson. Political observers anticipate that the issue will be a high-profile question during Mr. Wilson's campaign for a second term.

In recent weeks, the Republican Governor has intensified his emphasis on the immigration issue. Like Florida and several other states, California is suing the federal government for reimbursement of services it provides to illegal immigrants. (See Education Week, May 11, 1994.)

Governor Wilson, who faces a $3 billion budget shortfall, has complained that spending on illegal immigrants is sapping the state's fiscal resources.

Voters apparently are receptive to the stance. In a statewide poll last month, the Los Angeles Times found that the petition drive was receiving nearly two-to-one support.

Under the proposal, schools would be required to document the immigration status of every student and exclude any child whose parents could not prove citizenship or provide a work permit.

Critics of the petition contend that it would quickly be found unconstitutional. In a landmark 1982 ruling in the case of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law denying public education to illegal immigrants violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Governor Wilson has said he favors the measure primarily because it would provide a court test of whether the state can deny public funding to serve illegal immigrants.

An Unschooled Generation?

The growing support for the plan worries Hispanic and other minority activists.

"There has been no discussion of the implications of what happens to these children if they are not in the classroom,'' said Arturo Vargas, the vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles. "Do we want to create a generation of children who are uneducated and unschooled? That would bode even worse for California.''

"We are identifying immigrants as the enemy, and everyone who is foreign born or has brown skin becomes a suspect,'' Mr. Vargas said. "We turn public employees into arms of a Big Brother state and make the atmosphere ripe to commit acts like deportments and internment that we later regret.''

In an effort to battle the petition's momentum, Hispanic activists have begun to question their critics' portrayal of illegal immigrants as siphoning off public services.

Immigrants largely enter the United States to take low-paying jobs, opponents of the restrictions contend, and fill an important niche in the state's economy.

The measure has been opposed by all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, the favorite going into this week's primary, has called the plan "mean-spirited and dangerous.''

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