In a blow to the burgeoning anti-immigration movement in the United States, a federal judge has struck down large parts of a draconian law passed by Californian voters last year to bar illegal aliens from schools and hospitals.
Judge Marian Pfaelzer delivered a long awaited 71-page ruling in Los Angeles, declaring unconstitutional many of the most essential elements of the law, in particular those denying undocumented immigrants access to federally-funded education and medical treatment.
The decision is an embarrassing set-back for the Governor of California, Pete Wilson, who championed the measure, known as Proposition 187. After bitter campaigning by both sides the law was approved by voters by a 3- to-2 margin last autumn.
Its passage gave impetus to a nationwide movement towards tough new action against illegal immigrants and spurred other states, notably Florida and Arizona, to begin work on similar kinds of legislation. Congress has also begun drafting new laws to lower immigration levels.
Mr Wilson said the judge's ruling was "very unfortunate. It frustrates the will of the people of California". He vowed to appeal against the decision and suggested that the issue would ultimately have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
In her ruling, Judge Pfaelzer essentially gutted Proposition 187. Among the elements that she overturned was a provision that would have obliged hospital workers and school administrators to report to the authorities any undocumented aliens seeking their services, thus, in effect, turning them into part-time immigration agents for the government.
Judge Pfaelzer left open, however, the possibility that illegal aliens could none the less be denied services funded by the state of California itself, including such things as college education.
"It's a plus for us, a complicated plus," remarked Stephen Yagman, a Los Angeles lawyer at the forefront of the opposition to Proposition 187. "But we always assumed this would be a long, long fight, probably all the way to the US Supreme Court."
California has the most diverse ethnic mix of any American state. Backing for Proposition 187 was fuelled by supporters' claims that huge numbers of aliens were flooding across California's southern border with Mexico and adding billions of dollars to the burden of taxpayers by using public services such as schools and hospitals.
Opponents of Proposition 187 argued that its implementation would have little impact on immigration flows while worsening the plight of a large under-class in the state and stoking social tensions. There was also concern that the law would encourage anti-immigrant - and especially anti-Hispanic - bigotry that would have hurt legal and illegal aliens alike.
It is estimated that in California, roughly one in five of the immigrant population entered illegally. In recent months, the federal government has launched a largely effective military-style campaign to shut down the flow of aliens from Central and South America into California, Arizona and Texas.Reuse content