A federal judge in Los Angeles last week struck down many provisions, including those relating to schools, contained in the 1994 ballot measure California voters passed to curb illegal immigration.
The 71-page ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer represents the first time a court has weighed in on the legality of Proposition 187. It essentially rejected as unconstitutional all of the measure’s provisions that involve elementary and secondary schools. To date, courts have issued preliminary injunctions to bar the measure’s implementation; those orders are still in effect.
While many education and civil-rights groups hailed Judge Pfaelzer’s strong ruling, they acknowledged that it was only the beginning of a long court battle that will likely wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court--just as the proposition’s authors intended. (See Education Week, Nov. 16 and Nov. 23, 1994.)
“We are in the first round of a 10-round heavyweight fight,” California Attorney General Dan Lungren, who has led the state’s defense of the measure, said in a statement. Last week, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who has associated himself closely with the immigration measure, pledged to appeal Judge Pfaelzer’s ruling.
If ultimately upheld in the courts, Proposition 187 would require schools to verify the immigration status of students and their parents and notify federal immigration officials and others of the identities of those “reasonably suspected” of being in the country illegally. Illegal-immigrant children would be denied a K-12 public education.
“I think this gives a temporary collective sigh of relief for our members,” Kevin Gordon, the assistant executive director of government relations for the California School Boards Association, said last week.
Many education groups, as well as Delaine Eastin, California’s superintendent of public instruction, have championed the fight against Proposition 187.
Following the measure’s easy passage last year, more than half a dozen lawsuits challenging various provisions were filed in state and federal courts. Judge Pfaelzer’s ruling responded to arguments by civil-rights and education groups that argued that immigration is a federal responsibility and that the U.S. Constitution does not permit a state to establish its own system.
Quick Judgment on Schools
The judge agreed that requiring schools and other public agencies to verify and report immigration status violates the Constitution.
“The California voters’ overwhelming approval of Proposition 187 reflects their justifiable frustration with the federal government’s inability to enforce the immigration laws effectively,” Judge Pfaelzer wrote. “No matter how serious the problem may be, however, the authority to regulate immigration belongs exclusively to the federal government.”
Denying illegal immigrants a K-12 education is also unconstitutional, she ruled, citing the landmark 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe. In a 5-4 vote, the high court in that case ruled that the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits states from denying undocumented children a free public education. That provision is the issue that Proposition 187’s supporters want to see the Supreme Court review and overturn.
Judge Pfaelzer left open the question of whether the state could deny illegal immigrants access to the state’s public colleges and universities, as well as access to many social and health services, as called for by the measure. Those issues are likely to be hashed out in a trial or under other legal processes, observers said. Other lawsuits challenging Proposition 187 in state courts are still pending.
Gov. Wilson quickly denounced the ruling.
“I am confident that finally the people of California will win and the high court will uphold the will of California voters,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Judge Rejects Prop 187 Bans on Calif. Services