California rolls back racist laws

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The Independent Online
FIVE YEARS after California effectively declared war on its ethnic minorities with a raft of hostile legislation, there are signs that some of the state's toughest anti-immigration and anti-crime measures are being softened or rolled back - either because they do not work or because they have been thrown out by the courts.

The repressive measuresare not disappearing overnight, despite the arrival of a more moderate political leadership in the state capital and the ascent of several Latino law-makers. Rather, they are being allowed to die slowly by legalistic or bureaucratic means, as the paranoid atmosphere immediately after the 1992 Los Angeles riots gives way to greater tolerance fuelled by renewed economic prosperity.

Most notorious of the measures passed under the leadership of the right- wing former governor Pete Wilson wasProposition 187, which would have cut off all public assistance to illegal immigrants, notably in health and education. Tens of thousands of children risked being thrown out of school and just as many adults faced deportation if they so much as dared go to the doctor.

Since its passage in 1994, the initiative has been bogged down in a legal dispute and has never become law. Last weekCalifornia's super- cautious governor Gray Davis, the first Democrat to hold the post for 16 years, announced he would not champion any further legal appeals - effectively killing it.

Proposition 187 was followed by Proposition 206, which swept away the state's affirmative action policy, and Proposition 227, which abolished bilingual education.

Under Mr Wilson, the legislature also passed the so-called "three strikes" law, mandating sentences of 25 years to life for offenders convicted three times for felonies, however minor.

At the time, such measures enjoyed broad popular backing. But today, the economy has picked up, and with it the clout of the growing Latino and Asian populations. Gray Davis has brought on board a Latino lieutenant- governor, Cruz Bustamante and a clutch of senior officials of Mexican and central American origin. The speaker of the state assembly, Antonio Villaraigosa, is also a Latino, with ambitions to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles.

Now barely a week passes without a dent being made in Mr Wilson's legacy. Among the changes being considered is one enabling foreigners to get Californian driving licences without proving legal residence - not to make their lives easier, but to ensure they can be licensed and insured for the safety of all.