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Push is on to restore services for illegals

July 29, 1999

The Orange County Register

SACRAMENTO - A year ago, the Democratic Party battle cry was "Adios, Pete Wilson" - a none-too-subtle reference to the then-governor's role in denying public services to illegal immigrants.

Now Wilson is gone, forced from office by term limits. And Democratic lawmakers are trying to bid good riddance to many of the restrictions he put in place.

Bills allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license and pay lower tuition at state universities are pending in the Legislature. Other measures would give state-paid health insurance to children and workers' compensation benefits to injured employees. Another would make it illegal to discriminate against a person based on immigration status.

Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, signed legislation Monday to sanction state-paid health benefits for illegal immigrants who are pregnant or are patients in nursing homes.

Now Davis appears ready to end the state's appeal of a court decision that struck down Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to eliminate most services to illegal immigrants. That would remove the issue from the judicial system and return it to the Legislature.

But Davis has sent signals to the Legislature that he is not pleased with some of the other bills that could be headed his way.

"It's fair to say that the governor is not much interested in providing services for illegal immigrants," said Tim Gage, his finance director.

The same cannot be said for the Legislature.

At least nine bills have been introduced this year that would restore benefits or grant new rights to illegal immigrants. Some of those bills are in response to changes Wilson engineered around the time of the passage of Prop. 187.

Some of the bills are designed to bring California into compliance with a 1996 federal law that prohibited the states from providing services to undocumented immigrants unless the Legislature and governor passed new laws authorizing those programs.

"Californians are conflicted about illegal immigrants," said state Sen. Patrick Johnston, a Stockton Democrat whose bill would restore workers' compensation and disability benefits to illegal immigrants.

"People vote to exclude them from public services like education and health care but turn the other way when they pick our fruit, make our beds, mow our lawns, build our houses and sew our garments.

"The magnet for illegal immigration is principally employment opportunity. When people are allowed to work in this state and they get hurt on the job, they ought to get benefits just like any other injured worker. And if they pay into the state disability insurance program, they ought to be able to draw benefits when they are sick or injured."

Sponsors of the other measures each have their arguments.

The driver's license bill has been portrayed as a public safety measure that will let all motorists register their cars, which in turn would require them to carry insurance.

Giving illegal immigrants the same discounted tuition that legal residents get is fair and smart, supporters say, because the beneficiaries would be people who have lived in California for at least three years and graduated from high school here. It makes sense, they say, to educate immigrants so they can move up the economic ladder.

The anti-discrimination bill grew out of a survey that found several hundred cases of alleged bias - in everything from restaurant service to banking - against people who were either undocumented immigrants or perceived to be.

Susie Angel, who works with immigrants at the Catholic Church's Family Support Center in Orange County, said she knew of a boy who graduated last year from Valley High School and was awarded a college scholarship but lost it when the sponsors learned he was undocumented.

"This kid had a bright future," she said. "There are so many things that many of us take for granted that we have and don't use. He wanted that opportunity wholeheartedly. It's sad."

But it's not just Hispanics who are affected by the restrictions.

Barbara Majringer, a Czech immigrant who is here on a one-year visa, said she was denied a driver's license because the Department of Motor Vehicles said the license would still be valid after her visa had expired. She needs the license so she can drive from her Anaheim home to work in Placentia.

Majringer says she knows other immigrants who got their licenses several years ago and still have them, even though they are now here illegally.

"I am legal and they won't give me one," she said. "It's really not fair."

Opponents, however, believe the bills are part of a far-reaching plan to undo the restrictions adopted in recent years. Those restrictions were supported by a majority of California voters, based on the passage of Prop. 187.

"I think there is a concerted effort under way to blur the line between those who are in the country legally and those here illegally," said Assemblyman Ken Maddox, R-Garden Grove.

"When we create an environment that says there is no difference between the two, we are making California much more attractive at the expense of those who are here legally."

Others go further. Barbara Coe, a Huntington Beach woman who was a co-author of Prop. 187, believes that Hispanic Democrats in the Legislature are part of a plot to return California to the control of Mexicans, if not Mexico.

"The ultimate goal is to reconquer the Southwest and return it to Mexico," Coe said in an interview. "California would be the first to fall."

The driver's license bill, Coe said, would make it easier for illegal immigrants to get other documents that might help them fake citizenship. And she sees the anti-discrimination measure as a way to prevent people from being charged with harboring illegal immigrants if they rent to them or let them live in their homes.

"An illegal alien is an illegal alien," she said. "If they come here illegally, they should be deported."

Democrats in Sacramento say they hope that Coe and her allies in the Coalition for Immigration Reform are a dwindling minority representing an anti-immigration movement that peaked during hard economic times in the mid-1990s but is fading fast.

"The mood has changed a lot since then; the populace has changed a lot," said Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara. "The repudiation of Pete Wilson and Dan Lungren was a real statement by Californians. To educate people is to our advantage. To see people born healthy is just smart."

But worries about immigration have not disappeared entirely from the political radar screen. And some Democrats who represent districts with a large number of Republicans have been leery about voting for these bills.

The driver's license bill stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee and will now be amended so that only those immigrants with a pending application for citizenship or legal status would be eligible. The same change was made recently to the measure on university tuition.

The anti-discrimination measure, after clearing the Assembly, came up short in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It may be voted on again later this summer or early next year.

Gov. Davis, meanwhile, made it clear in budget negotiations that he would not support a big expansion of state-subsidized health insurance, and the proposal to give those services to illegal immigrant children was shelved for the year.

And when lawmakers sent Davis a bill to sanction nursing home care for illegal immigrants, he refused to sign it until they passed a second bill limiting the growth in that program to no more than 10 percent in the coming year.

The governor's edict surprised supporters of the measure because the program is small - only about 300 illegal immigrants get such care statewide - and growing slowly. But Gage, the finance director, said Davis feared that authorizing the service with a blank check might lead immigrant families to bring their elderly parents to California and put them in nursing homes here.

"While the number of individuals is not large, the cost per individual is pretty steep," he said. "And so it's something that could potentially grow rapidly if a whole lot of folks perceive that they could come to California and get long-term care."

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, a former labor organizer who helped lead the opposition to Prop. 187 and has been a key player in the drive to restore benefits, said the setbacks make it clear that supporters will have to chip away at their goal over time.

"Some of the members are still sensitive," Cedillo said. "It's difficult for them to think they can raise this discussion again and not get screamed at and yelled at and get the deluge of phone calls."