By Jason Weston

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been growing steadily in California over the last few years as citizens and government officials have been struggling with economic hardship and looking for a scapegoat. In the state-wide election last month Californians approved Proposition 187 by a wide margin, a misguided effort that is undermining California’s foundation, both economically and ethically.

The so-called “Save Our State” (SOS) initiative was written to deny education and health care to illegal immigrants as a shortsighted attempt to save money. The proposed law would prohibit illegal immigrants from utilizing public education and public health services (except in cases of emergency) and require teachers and health care professionals to report illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Although there is a good chance the measure may never be enacted (the American Civil Liberties Union and half a dozen other groups have filed lawsuits to prove it is unconstitutional), in many ways the damage is already being done as some people are afraid to use the public services they need and feel ostracized by the communities in which they live.

California, as the rest of the United States, is populated almost entirely by immigrants and their descendants and we continue to attract more everyday. Although the number of people entering California illegally is difficult to determine, the Urban Institute estimates that for most years from 1980 to 1992 between 2.5 million and 4 million people crossed the US borders illegally, and nearly half of those came to California. Contrary to popular belief, the men, women and children who come to the United States arrive from all over the globe; Mexicans make up no more than 55% of people who are in the country illegally. And while more than three million people illegally cross the USMexican border each year, more than nine out of ten return home.

Health care

This initiative would deny illegal immigrants and their children access to all but emergency health services. From a public health standpoint, it’s difficult to understand how millions of children foregoing prenatal care and vaccination can possibly save California any money in the long run. This aspect of the bill also poses a number of other questions, both humane and economic. Have the voters of California become so callous that we would tell a mother not to take her sick child to a public clinic for care until it becomes an emergency? Most ailments, when attended to early, are easier to treat, have a better chance for successful treatment, cause less suffering to the patient, and are less costly to the health care sys tem. By asking people to wait until sicknesses become emergencies, we are asking people to risk their health, to suffer more, and ultimately, to cause the already high cost of medicine to continue to skyrocket. Emergency rooms are going to be overcrowded with people who should be seeing health professionals on a non-emergency basis, but instead are at the emergency room (the most expensive of medical services) because they are not allowed to receive treatment otherwise.


In 1982, in an opinion written by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrant children had a right to go to school. He said that education has “a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society.” Proposition 187 would prevent children from attending school, thereby establishing the legally questionable and socially intolerable situation of enforced truancy. To say that preventing illegal immigrants from attending school will save California money is palpably false; California stands to lose approximately 3.4 billion dollars in federal education funding if it expels students from its schools who cannot prove they are here legally.

Loss of Federal Funding

If Proposition 187 is enacted, California could lose more than $15 billion every year in federal funding. This is because federal law mandates that school and medical records be kept confidential unless the student or patient gives permission for the release of that information. Violating these federal laws would be grounds for the federal government to withhold payment. Elizabeth G. Hill, the Legislative Analyst of the State of California, wrote (in the 1994 Ballot Pamphlet booklet that was sent to every voter in the state) that the fiscal effect of this proposition would be to save “in the range of $200 million annually.” These savings would be immediately offset because the costs of implementation are estimated to “be in the tens of millions of dollars, with first-year costs considerably higher (potentially in excess of $100 million).” Both of these figures are peanuts compared to the $15 billion in federal funding that California stands to lose if this proposition should fully be put into effect.

The proponents of Proposition 187 claim that it will “save our state” from economic disaster because illegal immigrants cost so much money. Critics of illegal immigrants often cite three reasons for wanting to prevent illegal immigrants from living within our borders: job scarcity, lack of tax revenue and overuse of public services. Each of these rea-sons are based on misconceptions that are rooted in cultural myth or, in some cases, purposeful disinformation.


It is true that one of California’s primary attractions for immigrants is jobs. In 1986 President Reagan’s top economic advisors told Congress that “while they were not condoning illegal immigration, they could find no evidence that the employment of illegal aliens displaced nativeborn workers from jobs.” Even Governor Pete Wilson, who has been one of the most ardent supporters of Proposition 187, knows illegal immigrants are an important part of California’s economic and employment picture. In 1986 he championed a key provision that facilitated the continued supply of inexpensive farm labor. After that provision passed, Senator Wilson bragged that it “would guarantee decent housing, workmen’s compensation, and other benefits for the seasonal farm workers.”

Taxes and Public Services

The American revolution was partially instigated by the objection to taxation without representation. Ironically, this is exactly the position in which many illegal workers find themselves. They pay the same sales taxes on the items they purchase as anyone else yet are being denied some of the essential services that tax money provides. Officials in government know that illegal immigrants pay more than their fair share of income taxes. President Reagan’s council of economic advisors reported in 1986 that “Illegal aliens may find it possible to evade some taxes, but they use fewer services than do other groups.” They go on to say that “The chapter [in the report] on immigration became controversial . . . [because] the President’s economic advisers had been forced to delete comments saying that proposals to punish employers of illegal aliens would have adverse effects on the economy.” (italics added) In other words, Reagan’s economic council suppressed evidence that proved illegal immigrants have a positive effect on the economy!

Here in California, the argument becomes blatantly racist. Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times reports that “The Orange Countybased Coalition for Immigration Reform includes the statement: ‘Facts and figures repeatedly prove that illegal aliens, first committing a criminal act by violating our borders and then bringing their values and culture into our midst, are major contributors to our mounting financial burdens and moral and social degradation.'” (italics added)

What this all means is that members of our government know that workers who are in the country illegally actually enhance the economy, but because of their own bigotry they are suppressing that information while promoting ideas to the contrary.

One of the economic arguments about illegal immigrants not paying their fair share of taxes seems at first to have merit, but upon closer scrutiny is revealed to be a problem of unfair distribution of the taxes they pay. Ken Silverstein of Scholastic Update writes “economists also note that illegal immigrants not only pay sales tax on purchases, but—because they often fake documents to obtain employment—have social security and federal income taxes withheld from their paychecks. Few dare file for a refund, so that money remains in government coffers.” But the burden of supplying public services falls primarily on the state and counties. If the federal government would give to the state the amount of profit it receives from illegal immigrants who pay into federal coffers but do not collect federal services, California would have no difficulty in paying for the necessary services to keep all of the peo-le in its territory safe, well and educated. Perhaps the reason the borders are so leaky is because it is so profitable to the federal government to spend a minimal amount on border patrol while collecting billions of dollars in taxes for services they will never render.


Proposition 187 requires educators, health care professionals and police to report people whom they suspect of being illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. On what basis should a person be suspected? This regressive legislation paves the way for “legal discrimination” based on whether a person’s skin is dark or if they speak with an accent.

Appropriate Response

As a student in a California Community College and as an occasional patient in our health care system, I feel strongly that it would be unethical for me to participate in this racist, misguided assault on this state’s immigrants. Therefore, if Proposition 187 is enacted, I encourage all students and patients to join with me in refusing to show proof of citizenship to those who have been assigned to turn in those of us who do not have them. We must stand together in solidarity to protect one another from the ugliness and hatred of bigotry. I urge teachers and health care providers, who work hard in the service of our communities, to flood the INS with the names of everyone who attends their classes or goes to them for medical care. By flooding the INS with millions of false guesses as to who is in the country illegally perhaps we can show the fallacy of this fascist initiative and overturn it.


Those who fought the hardest against the fair treatment of illegal immigrants grossly misled the people of California by placing the blame for all of our problems on them. This is not the first time in history that this kind of tactic has been used. As Hitler blamed the Jews for the problems of Germany in his era, today we see the horrors of racial hatred and scapegoating in Bosnia and Rwanda.And the Jews are being blamed once again: this time in Russia by Vladimir Zhirinovsky whose party garnered 25% of the vote in the last Russian presidential election (75% of the vote of the military). I had always thought that in America we were safe from that kind of terrorism, but Proposition 187 is as dangerous a step towards fascism in this country as I have ever seen. I am appalled and sickened that more than 59% of Californians have been seduced into the temptation to blame their problems on a minority that cannot even vote to defend itself.

All people are entitled to basic human rights. We must work together to protect the health and rights of our neighbors. Proposition 187 is a macabre deception which, if implemented, will further fracture our already troubled society. If the courts don’t overturn Proposition 187, it will be up to the people affected by it: and those people include all of us.