Approval of Prop 187 Spurs Suits, Protests

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Proposition 187, a controversial ballot measure that California voters made law last week, has sparked a flurry of lawsuits in state and federal courts and sent students into the streets in protest.

Lawsuits have triggered court orders that bar implementation of the new law, which denies most social services to illegal immigrants, including education in the public schools.

Passage of the measure, dubbed "Save Our State" by proponents, was denounced immediately by nearly every state education group and numerous civil-rights organizations that had lobbied against it. (See Education Week, 10/26/94.)

California education officials estimate that as many as 410,000 of the state's 5.3 million students are illegal immigrants.

The law, approved by 59 percent of California voters, requires that districts verify by Jan. 1 the immigration status of every child enrolling in school for the first time. By Jan. 1, 1996, districts are to have verified the immigration status of all students and their parents.

Schools are to report students "reasonably suspected" of being illegal immigrants to the state schools chief, the attorney general, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Other provisions of the law, which restrict health and welfare benefits to illegal immigrants, were to go into effect immediately.

A state judge in San Francisco issued a restraining order barring implementation of the law's education provisions until a hearing later this month. A similar order by a Los Angeles federal judge, covering all of Proposition 187's provisions, runs out this week.

Proponents deliberately drafted the measure to contradict a landmark 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that granted public education to all students, regardless of immigration status. The proponents sought to trigger lawsuits to reach the Supreme Court where, they hope, the decision would be overturned.

Districts were instructed by their legal counsels last week to not change anything in the way they enroll students or keep their records. In fact, school officials who try to implement the measure now would be violating state and federal law, many school lawyers said.

But last week, educators had more questions than answers about how to implement the measure--if or when the courts decide it should be carried out.

And many educators said that even though the measure technically is not in effect, the fear generated by its passage could be enough to make parents already nervous about immigration status keep their children out of school.

Moves To Reassure Parents

Officials estimated that hundreds of students in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento protested the new law the day after the election. But heavy rains dampened some student protest plans scheduled for later in the week. For weeks leading up to the election, students across the state had staged almost daily walkouts--mostly peaceful--to protest Proposition 187.

In an attempt to quell parents' fears, William D. Dawson, the acting state superintendent of public instruction, in a televised interview earlier this month, made a plea to students to stay in school. The California Teachers Association and the Los Angeles school district sent notices to parents to reassure them that the new law was not in effect.

But some educators and parents said that, despite such efforts, the divisive environment that the measure has fostered is enough to drive parents away from their children's schools.

"The message is clearly, 'Get out, or we'll get you out,"' said Lawrence D. Gonzales, the principal of Pacoima Elementary School in the predominantly Hispanic San Fernando Valley. "People are going to hunker down in their homes."

Soledad Rodriguez, a longtime Mexican-American resident of Pacoima who volunteers in the elementary school her son attends, said many mothers she spoke with the day after the law passed were already preparing to keep their children home. Ms. Rodriguez said that she will keep sending her 7-year-old son to school, but that she has her own fears.

"Even though we have our papers, it makes all of us scared--who knows what will come next from this law, from all this anger," Ms. Rodriguez said.

But school officials from some of the state's biggest districts said post-election attendance was slightly down only in pockets.

Constitutional Questions

At least seven lawsuits against various parts of Prop 187 were filed in state and federal courts by various groups, including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the California School Boards Association, and the Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco school districts.

Re-elected Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the attorney general, the state board of education, the state education department, and the superintendent of public instruction were named as defendants in the education-related suits. The suits argue that the law violates both the California and U.S. constitutions. The U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause under the 14th Amendment protects "any person," not just "any citizen."

The plaintiffs also argued that the California Supreme Court consistently has held that the state constitution goes one step further to hold that education is a "fundamental interest."

Pledging a Fight

Supporters of the measure said they had expected the suits and vowed to continue to fight them.

"There's no question that the voice of California spoke on this," said Ronald S. Prince, the chairman of the S.O.S. committee, which worked to pass the measure.

Harold W. Ezell, a co-author of the proposition and a former I.N.S. regional commissioner, criticized education groups fighting the measure. "They're spending tax dollars to fight a law made by the taxpayers," Mr. Ezell said.

Attorney General Daniel E. Lungren and Governor Wilson--both of whom supported the measure--pledged to defend the new law in court.

While the battle over the measure is waged in the courts, school lawyers such as Ralph D. Stern said they fear school personnel who favor the new law may take matters into their own hands.

"Our suspicion is that a substantial number of school people voted for this measure," said Mr. Stern, who represents 25 districts across the state. "School officials have a real concern over vigilantes who see themselves as enforcers."

Meanwhile, educators have received conflicting opinions from the attorney general and the state education department on what the consequences for not implementing the law would be. Mr. Wilson last week told agencies affected by the measure, including the state board of education, to draft emergency regulations on implementing the law.

Before Proposition 187 passed, the U.S. Education Department said that because the measure was likely to violate federal education privacy laws, the state could lose its federal education aid. But last week, a department spokeswoman said officials would wait for court decisions before taking any action.

Vol. 14, Issue 11

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