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A Matter Of Semantics

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Los Angeles

As the fall's first rain coated them in mist, protesters jammed the sidewalk outside the Museum of Tolerance, shaking signs and shouting: "'S.O.S.' means 'Sink Our State'!"

Inside the museum intended to celebrate peaceful diversity, in a packed auditorium just steps away from an exhibit on the riots that have torn this city, the debate was punctuated by hisses, boos, and plenty of inflammatory sniping. The subject was what many observers call the most divisive and emotional ballot initiative in California's recent history.

On Nov. 8, voters will pass judgment on Proposition 187, dubbed "Save Our State" by supporters, an initiative that would deny illegal immigrants most social services, including public education and non-emergency health care.

It would require schools to verify the immigration status of students and their parents and notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of any student or parent "reasonably suspected" of being in the country illegally.

The proposal's education provisions deliberately challenge federal law. Among their other aims, proponents hope that passage of Proposition 187 would force the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, which held that all children have a constitutional right to public education regardless of immigration status.

Meanwhile, educators and observers across the country are watching California's battle as a telling moment in the national debate over who should be allowed to live in the United States and how illegal immigrants will be treated.

"If you want to let California become a third-world state, vote no on 187," Harold W. Ezell, a former I.N.S. regional commissioner, told the museum audience here earlier this month.

Mr. Ezell and Alan C. Nelson, a former I.N.S. commissioner who, like Mr. Ezell, served in the agency during the Reagan Administration, are the co-authors of Proposition 187 and the leaders of an extensive coalition of grassroots groups that promote changes in immigration policy.

Most proponents have remained more anonymous; the location of the campaign's Orange County headquarters is a secret because its leaders say they fear retaliation.

Supporters say passing Prop 187 would help wrench California out of its economic rut and serve as a wake-up call to politicians who have avoided dealing with illegal immigration.

Opponents--including nearly all the state's education groups--call the measure "mean spirited" and the wrong solution to a complex problem. In what they realize is an uphill battle, the opponents are asking voters to look beyond the broad, emotionally charged debate over illegal immigration at 187's specific provisions and likely impact.

But polls suggest that many voters are following their gut instincts. A Field poll released late last month found that 57 percent of registered voters favored the measure, with 31 percent opposing it.

Support for Proposition 187 cuts across political, religious, racial, and ethnic lines. Polls show that even Hispanics, who make up a quarter of California's population but only 11 percent of the electorate, are evenly split on the issue.

'We Feel Like Outsiders'

A talk with voters at a recent neighborhood meeting in one of Long Beach's most politically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods quickly revealed that both those for and against 187 have one thing in common: They all have a story about how immigration touches their neighborhoods and their lives.

Rommel Manalo, a first-generation American born of Filipino parents, said he will vote against 187 but understands his neighbors' frustration.

"When I was a kid we went to drive-ins and drive-thrus and played baseball," he recalled. "Other immigrants are in such a separate subculture that they don't blend in."

A longtime resident, Leslie Krolczyk, said she is upset with the way her neighborhood is changing and plans to vote for 187.

"Legal immigrants care more about where they live," she said, bemoaning the underwear her neighbors string on clotheslines along their balconies and the disemboweled cars parked outside.

Less than 20 miles away, at the northern end of Los Angeles County, Glendale offers a different ethnic slice of California. But some thematic similarities emerged as members of the West Glendale Kiwanis Club gathered for a weekly meeting.

"The Armenians are coming here to create their own little worlds, and then we feel like outsiders," said Katrina Fernandez, a health-insurance broker who has lived in Glendale for nine years and plans to vote for Prop 187.

Sam Engel, who works for a community-service organization and usually votes Democratic, said his group has had to intervene in conflicts between day laborers who wait outside a local roller rink for work and families taking their children to skate. He said he will likely vote for the proposal.

Many voters admitted that they often assume immigrants are here illegally.

Educators Voice Uncertainty

About 20 years ago, when Don Duncan became the principal of Glendale's Hoover High School, most students were "lily white." Today, Armenians are the city's predominant ethnic group.

Educators at Hoover High acknowledged they are frustrated with the complexities of educating an increasingly diverse student body, but most said they are not convinced that Prop 187 would make their jobs any easier.

"[Immigrant] students should be given a chance, but there's a whole contingent who don't care, don't bring their books, and come to class late," said Michael Olton, an English teacher.

Pat Peletier, an English-as-a-second-language teacher and longtime California resident, said she gets angry every Monday morning when it comes time to salute the American flag. Some of her students refuse to do so because, they say, it is not their flag.

"But it seems like [Prop 187 supporters] are looking for a cure-all for everything," she said. "Not all of my classroom problems are from illegal kids, but that's what they're trying to sell us on."

Registrar Fran Vessella, whose four children graduated from Hoover, said she is torn on 187. She thinks the measure's reporting requirements would likely make her job keeping track of the school's 2,800 students more complicated.

"I get angry when I see people who don't want to give back to this country, who don't try," she said. "Part of me wants to vote to make a statement--maybe it will make somebody do something. But I'm not sure this is the right answer."

The backdrop for the debate is telling. In 1964, California's average per-pupil spending on education ranked fifth in the nation; it is 26th today. The number of limited-English-proficient students in the state's schools increased 150 percent from 1984 to 1994, and they now make up a quarter of the student population. During the same period, overall enrollment increased by only 22 percent.

State education officials said they do not know how many L.E.P. students are foreign-born. They estimate that the state's classrooms hold as many as 410,000 illegal immigrant students, but concede that the number is only their best guess, since federal privacy law prohibits schools from asking students their legal status.

Vehicle for Voter Frustration

State legislative analysts project that Proposition 187 would cost up to $100 million to administer in the first year, and could result in the loss of $15 billion in federal funds--including about $2.3 billion for education--because it would violate federal laws. It would save roughly $200 million a year in various public services.

When voters were informed of the estimated costs, support for 187 dipped slightly in the polls.

But some voters who were interviewed said the loss of federal funds that could result from passing 187 would be a small price to pay for the long-term benefits of cutting off services to illegal immigrants.

As the election nears, many community and school leaders hope that voters will begin to see both the practical and philosophical drawbacks of the proposal.

While some politicians use the bully pulpit to garner support for Prop 187, religious leaders such as the Rev. Thomas Rush are using their own pulpits to try to persuade their congregations to vote no.

S.O.S., Father Rush said, has become the vehicle for voters to vent their frustration over all of California's social and economic ills, from gangs to graffiti. It is also a thinly disguised vehicle for race-baiting, he contended, by playing on the competition for scarce resources among minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos.

One early-October Sunday in the predominantly Hispanic San Fernando Valley town of Pacoima, Father Rush planted himself next to a voter-registration table manned by Cecilia Barragan outside Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. Barragan, a Mexican-American born in Arizona, has helped lead a coalition of religious groups opposing 187. She acknowledged that even at the church, where Sunday's Spanish-language massses draw thousands, the division of opinion runs deep.

She recounted visiting a Mexican-American woman who owns a beauty salon on Pacoima's main street and supports the initiative.

"Here in her seats are people who may be here illegally. She takes their money, but she doesn't support them," Ms. Barragan said, shaking her head.

A Political Litmus Test

The immigration issue is quickly becoming a litmus test for candidates across the state, from the governor's race to local city-council campaigns.

The state board of education this month debated a resolution urging voters to reject Proposition 187, but ultimately took no position--a move that William D. Dawson, the acting state superintendent of schools, called "a failure of leadership."

Also this month, both major candidates for state controller pledged to conduct vigorous audits of schools near the border to search out students who live in Mexico.

Democrat Kathleen Connell argues that Proposition 187 would be expensive for schools to administer. Republican Tom McClintock supports it, and vows to refuse to issue checks to pay for the education of undocumented students even if it is defeated.

After months of avoiding a formal statement, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, finally has thrown his support behind the measure.

His Democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown, now the state treasurer, opposes it, and many observers say the issue has hurt her chances of unseating Mr. Wilson. (See related story.)

Both candidates for state superintendent of public instruction--Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin and Maureen DiMarco, Governor Wilson's secretary of child development and education--oppose 187.

Funding Scarce

Neither side has a large war chest. Business contributions have been scarce, but last week several executives held a press conference to say 187 would hurt the economy.

While the consulting firm hired to fight 187 has not lost a "no" campaign in 20 years, it has not raised the $4 million opponents say they need to run television advertisements in a state where a ballot measure's fate historically has hinged on pricey media blitzes.

The coffers of the state's most powerful education lobby, the California Teachers Association, are running low after the group spent $12 million last year to defeat a voucher initiative. The union has put up $35,000 to defeat Prop 187.

Initiative proponents say their campaign relies on financial backing from the state's Republican Party and individual lawmakers.

But the lack of funding is particularly troublesome for opponents, who say they must persuade voters to put aside first impressions that favor the proposal.

Proposition 187 "was put on the ballot to send a message to politicians and light a prairie fire to spread across the country," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst for the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont College's graduate school.

"I think many supporters realize that much of what's in 187 will never become policy, but voters are so angry, they don't care."

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