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Death of an Urban Legend
By Lloyd Billingsley | July 21, 2006

SACRAMENTO – On June 30, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had good reason to smile for the cameras with Democrats, who control the Assembly and Senate. The state budget passed on time, without new debt or taxes. Though it escaped notice, some provisions in the budget also destroyed a longstanding politically correct incantation, used by Republicans and Democrats alike, to explain GOP woes in the state and to justify paralysis on illegal immigration.

During the budget debate, state senator Dennis Hollingsworth, a southern California Republican, said, "It's a mistake for state government to provide incentives and encouragement for illegal immigration." But this was exactly the rationale for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that set out to deny state services to illegals. Backed by state Republicans, it contained penalties for false identification and barred those in the country illegally from obtaining educational and non-emergency public services. The proposition passed with 59 percent of the vote, including 23 percent of Hispanics, but federal judge Mariana Pfaelzer, an appointee of Jimmy Carter, invalidated virtually the entire measure. Democratic governor Gray Davis inherited the duty to pursue the appeal, but dropped it, prompting Mark Rosenbaum, ACLU legal director for southern California, to crow that "the seal of the great state of California is now stamped on the death certificate of Proposition 187."

Though dead as law, leftist Democrats and anglophobic professional ethnics found in Proposition187 a convenient rhetorical weapon. Almost immediately after the court case, a myth was born: having supported this “racist” measure would haunt Republicans for a generation and condemn them to the political wilderness. The myth took hold as the Democrats took over the state during the next few years. Republicans accepted the myth that they had caused their own demise by being prophetic on the issue of illegal immigration. They came to believe that they would disappear altogether if they failed to cave on immigration and services for illegals. But this year's budget destroyed entirely this urban legend.

There was none of the fevered rhetoric that might have been expected to follow Hollingsworth's statement that it was a mistake for California to provide incentives and encouragement for illegal immigration. Fabian Nunez had been a vocal leader at the massive1994 Mexican-flag-waving anti-187 demonstrations in Los Angeles. But now as Speaker of the California Assembly he remained silent, perhaps aware of the reality that Sam Rodriguez, the Democrats' state political director, explained to the Los Angeles Times. "Twelve years after Prop. 187, replaying the story without the [campaign] noise factor is becoming more and more challenging." By "story," Rodriguez means spinning the proposition as a chronicle of oppression and nothing else.

The Democrats even agreed to nix $23 million for new insurance coverage for undocumented children. But as Clea Benson of the Sacramento Bee noted, the California budget debate ignored a key fact: "The government already spends almost $1 billion a year for some health-care services for the undocumented through Medi-Cal." Prenatal care, nursing home care and other services for illegals, Benson documented, have increased over the past decade by 50 percent into a $1 billion annual program. The costs have risen along with the number of those receiving services. The number of undocumented women giving birth and covered by Medi-Cal rose nearly 25 percent from 85,000 in 1995 to 105,000 in 2004 and "the overall costs of those births rose by about 135 percent during that time."

As those who work in the system will attest, and various investigations of Medi-Cal fraud confirm, people do cross the border illegally to obtain health care and other services. Giving birth to an "anchor baby" in the United States is the key to a series of benefits. The scale of spending on benefits for illegals in 2006 makes Proposition 187 seem ahead of its time, a fact that seems to have been recognized, if not exactly publicized, but politicians in other states.

In July, Democrats in Colorado restricted benefits for illegals with measures they called the toughest in the nation. Starting in August that state will require valid photo identification and a signed affidavit to prove one is in the country legally before obtaining benefits such as unemployment, health care or public housing. Only citizens and legal immigrants will be able to obtain public grants, contracts, loans and professional and commercial licenses.

The Colorado measures punish fraudulent applications with up to 18 months in jail and a fine of $5,000. Agencies that dispense benefits will have to verify the eligibility of applicants. On the November ballot, a proposal will ask voters whether the attorney general of Colorado should sue the federal government to demand enforcement of immigration laws. In light of these policies, it might be time to rehabilitate former California governor Pete Wilson, blamed for the “fiasco” caused by putting Proposition 187 on the ballot, who described the initiative as "the two-by-four we need" to get the attention of the federal government on immigration.

The Colorado House and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, passed the measures by overwhelming margins. Activists and professional ethnics have not charged that the vote sounds the death knell for the Democratic Party in Colorado as they say it did for the Republicans in California.

Last August, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency, a move that freed up money for border enforcement. In November, 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, a measure that barred social services to those who entered the country illegally and punishes public employees who fail to report immigration fraud. Exit polls showed 47 percent of Arizona Hispanics supporting the measure, upheld by the courts in late 2004. Some 11 other states are dealing with similar issues. These trends lay to rest ritualistic charges that state attempts to restrict benefits for illegal immigrants is necessarily racist. That puts the continuing efficacy of Proposition 187 as an explanation for Republican electoral failure in doubt.

"Proposition 187 has become a scapegoat for failed leadership and ineffective campaigns," says political strategist Arnie Steinberg, who cites "dismal candidates" as the reason for the Republicans’ eclipse in California. His list includes Tom Campbell, who feebly tried to unseat Dianne Feinstein and tendered such ideas as taxing the internet; Matt Fong, who equally ineffectually failed to unseat a vulnerable Barbara Boxer; and Dan Lungren, who lost to Gray Davis. All these candidates failed to gain office despite the backing of "vast sums." The problem, Steinberg said, was not Proposition 187 but their "bumbling."

John Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Tax Association believes that 187 was a prophetic measure that, far from being “fringe,” would pass again in 2006. He too discounts the measure as an all-purpose explanation for Republicans’ electoral failure, citing such measures as tax increases by Republican administrations.

"The tale of Republicans being ravaged by Prop. 187 may be an urban myth," wrote George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times in his May 11 column. Not known as an apologist for Republicans, Skelton writes that "it's an accepted truth — at least it keeps getting reported — that Proposition 187 was an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party in California and a boon for Democrats." But while the conventional wisdom is that 187 "set back the GOP at least a generation," Skelton wonders why the Democratic Party, not the GOP, that has been losing the biggest share of voter registration. And what about the fear, apparently embraced by Karl Rove, that 187 and similar measures would drive the coming power of the Hispanic constituency into the arms of the Democrats? At a time when the number of California Latinos registered to vote has doubled to three million, Jess Cervantes Jr., who owns a voter data company, told Skelton that "the Democratic party is losing…. Latinos are not finding any party that's embracing their concerns."

Skelton notes that since 1994, the year of Proposition187, the Democrats share of voter registration has fallen from 48.9 percent to 42.7 percent. The Republicans lost much less, dropping from 37.1 percent to 34.6 percent. In 1980, Democrats amounted to 53 percent of the California electorate, roughly 10 points higher than today. Republicans were about the same then as now.

The famous television ad for Proposition 187 showed packs of illegals running past the border checkpoint at San Diego while a voice says "they keep coming." This ad may have been overdone and was certainly overplayed but it was right in one sense. They do indeed keep coming. In 2006, the number of illegals has soared to some 11 million, according to an estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center. Mexico's new president Felipe Calderon, supposedly a conservative, objects to U.S. attempts to control its own border. As they tackle that task, federal officials have no reason to look nervously over their shoulder at Proposition 187 and Republicans should stop blaming the measure for their losses in California.

"Border security still is not considered a cornerstone of national security policy." That was the judgment of 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States. The neglected 2004 report shows how the 9/11 attackers successfully entered the United States 33 times over 21 months. They learned how to beat a system so porous it doubtless reinforced the killers' conviction that they operated under divine guidance.

The report explains how three illegal immigrants from El Salvador helped four of the 9/11 terrorists obtain identification documents in Virginia. That should help dispel another urban legend, the notion that massive illegal immigration carries no negative consequences.