California turns against its force of migrant labourers

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THE SCENE is the same every morning. As the sun rises over the mountains of southern California, bedraggled-looking men gather on suburban street corners, and watch America drive to work.

They are waiting for employers. Every so often, a smart-looking Jeep or Ford Bronco pulls up and one of the crowd is spirited off for a day clearing a garden in Los Angeles, shifting lumber in San Diego, or pruning bushes on a golf course in Palm Springs. After a few hours, the rest wander home, hoping for better luck next day.

These men - Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others - are members of California's 2.1 million population of illegal immigrants, most of whom have slipped across the Mexican border in search of dollars to send home. For years they have been tolerated by the rest of the population, although never much liked.

Now, however, the mood has changed; they have become the target of one of the harshest measures against illegal immigration in recent US history, proposed laws which some predict will set a pattern nationwide and help determine the 1996 presidential campaign agenda.

On 8 November, Californians will decide by public ballot whether to strip illegal immigrants of their rights to state and local non-emergency health care, welfare services, and education. The measures would compel officials, including teachers and health workers, to 'snitch' on anyone they suspected of being in the US illegally by informing the authorities. 'It is the police state mentality,' said Al Lundeen, spokesman for a coalition group opposing the proposition.

Despite such draconian terms, the proposal - known as Proposition 187 - has won considerable support in California among a cross-section of society, including a large element of the Latino population. In the last few years the Golden State - once seen as the engine that drove the vast US economy - has seen the worst slump since the Great Depression, partly because of deep post-Cold War cuts in the defence industry. Although the economy is picking up, an anti-immigrant mood has taken root. Last month a poll by the Los Angeles Times showed that 62 per cent of likely voters favoured the measure.

This sentiment is not new to California, which has long had a tendency to blame its 'illegal aliens' for any economic ills. In the 1930s, more than 50,000 Mexicans were deported from Los Angeles. Today, still rattled by the racially motivated Los Angeles riots of 1992, California purports to be more open minded.

Advocates of Proposal 187 - which they call the Save Our State initiative - argue that it will make life so uncomfortable for illegal immigrants that they will eventually return home. 'People are asking whether they want to continue to compensate, medicate, educate and incarcerate the illegals of the world, and the answer is a resounding no,' said Harold Ezell, co-author of the proposition.

But the economic statistics at issue are highly questionable. No one is sure precisely how much illegal immigrants costs America, despite many studies. It is difficult to quantify their (often overlooked) contribution as consumers, taxpayers, and a source of cheap labour.

Undocumented workers do some of the most poorly paid and undesirable work in California: picking fruit, working in garment- making sweat-shops, washing dishes, nannying. The loss of the illegal population could cost the state far more than it would save: it would lose dollars 2.3bn ( pounds 1.46) in federal aid to schools alone.

Nor is it clear whether the proposal, if passed, would be legal. The US Supreme Court has ruled that all children have a right to public education. Moreover, laws denying medical treatment to, say, an undocumented Mexican suffering from an infectious disease seem certain to spawn a host of lawsuits. The proposition's authors may prove to be more interested in forcing a legal showdown with the US government than introducing workable new laws.

But at the heart of the issue lies politics. America's immigrant- bashing mood has been seized upon by politicians who have made it a central theme in the forthcoming mid-term elections. By far the most vocal is California's Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, who has declared his support for Proposition 187, and is suing the federal government for the money California spends on social services for illegal foreigners. Having trailed badly in the polls, he has tub-thumped his way into the lead, by promising to take a harsh stand against undocumented immigrants.

President Clinton - eager, no doubt, to undercut Mr Wilson's position - has taken up the issue, by providing extra funds for protecting the US border.

(Photograph omitted)