And you shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the soul of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt. -Exodus 23:9
Though California's anti-immigrant Propo-sition 187 is new, the spirit behind it is not. While the Jewish people were living as exiles in Babylon, the self-promoting, power-hungry Haman
stirred up the people against them. "There is a certain people scattered...in all the provinces of your kingdom," he said to the king. "Their laws are different from those of all other people...so it is not in the king's interest to let them remain" (Esther 3:8).
Similar to Haman's invective against the Jews in Babylon two-and-a-half millennium ago, the passage of Proposition 187 in California stokes the nativist wildfire that is sweeping the country. It seems, as backers had hoped, that Proposition 187 will spur a re-examination of the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision, when the court ruled that states could not bar immigrant children from public schools. Even though civil rights groups have filed numerous lawsuits challenging 187 and California judges have blocked its implementation until the legal controversy is resolved, its victory by a 3-to-2 margin sends a strong anti-immigrant message to Washington and the rest of the country.
Proposition 187 would exclude undocumented immigrants from welfare benefits and all but emergency health care (even immunization against contagious diseases), ban the children of illegal immigrants-whether these children were U.S. citizens or not-from public schools, and mandate educators and medical providers to deny services to persons "reasonably suspect" of being undocumented. But since illegal immigrants were already ineligible for most public assistance in California, the initiative in reality strikes hardest at their children-who are the poorest and most vulnerable segment of the state's population.
IRONICALLY, THE primary proponents of 187 were many of the same conservatives that are leading the so-called family values push in the state. Their campaign showed just whose families they value the most and that their self-righteous zeal stops fast at the border of race and class. In a miscarriage of justice that the biblical prophets would have mocked, Gov. Herod's...er, Wilson's first step in enforcing 187 was to order that pregnant women who are undocumented immediately be denied access to state-provided prenatal care. The Latino Christmas tradition of posada, in which a couple dressed up as Mary and Joseph go from house to house in the barrio looking for a place that will welcome them, may be all too real for immigrants in California this season.
It is also ironic that in an election where the country voted overwhelmingly against big government and public spending, Californian voters should choose a measure whose enforcement will require a huge state bureaucracy. Though California voters were motivated to "take back the state" by cutting the amount the state spends on social services for illegal immigrants, it is unlikely that 187 will either save much money once it is actually implemented or stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the state.
Modern immigrants-like most of our ancestors-do not come into this country to join welfare roles but to seek a better life for themselves and their children, which means, in most cases, the opportunity to work. Proposition 187 hurts the quality of life in California, not only for illegal immigrants, but for all the residents of the state. If 187 succeeds in throwing the children of illegal immigrants out of the schools, the wider society will have to bear the long-term burden of young people who are going without an education or competitive job skills.
The proposition also has influenced people from all sectors of California-as well as in other parts of the United States-to look at those who speak with an accent, whose skin is any color but white, or who have a "foreign-sounding" surname (which, depending on your definition of foreign, most of us do) as criminals and the cause of local economic woes. The Orwellian character of Proposition 187 threatens to turn Califor-nia's schools and medical facilities into vigilante immigration offices and encourages children to turn in their undocumented parents.
Proposition 187 represents yet another turn of anti-immigrant, racist scapegoating that has risen many times before in our history, usually in times of economic stagnation. Yet there are those from every sector of the population who are able to see beyond the borders of divisive politicking and view increasing diversity as a concrete benefit to the country and the economy-a perspective supported by history.
The initiative spurred the formation of multiracial coalitions that launched protests before and after the election which got many people-especially young Latinos-out into the streets for the first time. "We are seeing the birth of a new Latino civil rights movement here, and the issue is going to be the rights of non-citizens," Latino advocate Antonio Gonzalez told The Los Angeles Times.
The astounding demographic changes that this country has seen in the last decade have prompted those with the most to lose to gather their forces for a last-ditch effort to retain control over the future of the country. Yet it isn't diversity that will cause the feared balkanization of this country, but the attitude of disrespect and intolerance that measures like 187 promote. Uncontrolled immigration into the United States needs to be better regulated than it is now, but the way to do this isn't to pass laws that attack the poor as they struggle for their chance in this land of opportunity.