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January 1995
Volume 13, Number 1

Victory in California
Justin Raimondo

The two-to-one vote in favor of California's Prop. 187 is a milestone in the battle against the welfare state. It is a victory that will help reclaim individual liberty against centralized power.

Out-spent, smeared, and attacked by both left and right, grassroots activists put Prop. 187 over the top. The story of their triumph is an object lesson in how exploited American taxpayers can take back the liberty and property the ruling political class has systematically stolen from them for more than a century.

The opinion-making elites were in a state of virtual hysteria in the months before election day. Fearful of the burgeoning nationwide rebellion against government that all the polls foretold, they were especially terrified that Californians might pass the initiative.

What exactly did the referendum propose? It brought an end to all government subsidies to illegal aliens in California, including welfare in the form of public education and health care, except in cases of emergencies. That's it. It was a chance, perhaps for the first time this century, for the people of a state to vote up or down on whether to keep or scrap a welfare program in its totality.

Let's be clear: Prop. 187 did not attack immigration. Immigration policy, however flawed, is set in Washington and remains unchanged. It did not even crack down on illegal immigration: the initiative said nothing about deporting or arresting illegals who come to live and work in the private sector. Illegals can attend any private school that would take them, or educate their children at home, as more and more citizens are doing anyway.

The sole focus of Prop. 187 was forbidding non-citizens from looting the citizens of California. Even people who favor more immigration should have rallied behind 187; it would insure that people who come here intend to work. Even people who champion illegal immigration could have favored Prop. 187; it insured that illegals would not be leaching off the citizenry.

As documented by George Borjas, the welfare participation rate of immigrants has doubled since 1970. In California, the costs in tax dollars approached the stratosphere. Illegals comprised 7% of the state's total student population, and cost $2 billion per year in education. California would have to build a new 600-student school every day for five years just to keep up with the illegal population.

California's health care costs for illegals run $1 billion per year. Welfare to single mothers costs $540 million per year. In Los Angeles alone, the costs of single mother subsidies was scheduled to reach $1 billion by the end of the decade.

Even a moderate Republican like Pete Wilson knew something had to be done. He tried to end this policy at the state level, but ran up against the central government's objections. In violation of California's rights, the feds were forcing state taxpayers to pay up whether they liked it or not. Gov. Wilson even took out full-page ads in the Washington Post asking the federal government to give the state a break, but to no avail. It was then that fed-up citizens took matters into their own hands.

It is a measure of the decline of our official political culture that Prop. 187 would even have to be debated--or, for that matter, would have to be brought up at all. In fact, the biggest shock, to people who heard about Prop. 187 for the first time, was to discover that illegals could become welfare bums with the full backing of the law.

When initiative proponents gathered enough signatures to get Prop. 187 on the ballot, the establishment was horrified. For here was a popular proposal that not only rolled back the welfare state, but it also represented a chance for voters to clarify the purpose of government, which is not to redistribute citizens' wealth to non-citizens.

The usual suspects shifted into high gear, including government employees, teacher unions, labor unions, big business, civil rights lobbies, "public-interest" law firms, doctors, government hospital employees, big universities, and establishment politicians. Most of them, of course, had something to gain from expansion of the welfare state.

First, they trained all their guns on the woefully underfunded, politically inexperienced grassroots activists in the Yes on 187 committee. They were called every named in the book, as the smear brigade went into overdrive. This well-funded opposition even ran radio ads claiming that 187 was backed by "white supremacists."

Reporters were insane with anger, dropping all pretenses at journalistic "objectivity." And every major editorial page in the state denounced the initiative. So did the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Then came the scare campaign. Every sort of horror, from epidemics of tuberculosis to outbreaks of crime and organized rioting, were trotted out as the inevitable consequence of the initiative's passage. Illegals themselves threatened the end of civil society. In the end, however, none of it worked, and California's voters put a stop to the most objectionable form of welfarism imaginable.

Once passed, a federal judge in Los Angeles used the tyrannical power of his office to override the verdict of California's voters. If Prop. 187 is eventually declared "unconstitutional," it will tell us what's wrong with judicial tyranny, not the initiative. It would also signal an agenda for the future.

But it wasn't just the left and the establishment that mobilized against Proposition 187. Some intellectuals, politicians, and thinktanks of the respectable right launched a frantic campaign as well. Canadian commentator David Frum and Washington neocon William Kristol joined the attacks. And one week before the election, Cesar V. Conda of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution gathered signers for a statement opposing Prop. 187. "In our view," the statement said, missing the point entirely, the initiative will become "a hostile crusade against all immigrants."

He gathered signers from most of the big thinktanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The media reported that these groups had thrown their institutional weight into defeating the measure.

The antics of Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett made the Tocqueville Institution statement appear moderate, however. To media cheers, they echoed the message of their liberal allies. Put simply, they said Prop. 187 is racist. "Does anyone seriously doubt that Latino children named Rodriguez would be more likely to appear to be illegal than Anglo children named, say, Jones?"

To begin with, according to the text of Prop. 187, all students signing up for tax-funded education will be asked to provide proof of citizenship, whether their name is Rodriguez, or Kemp, or Bennett. And since Kemp and Bennett assert that asking schoolchildren to provide proof of citizenship smacks of "totalitarianism," then why isn't asking them for proof of residence, routine medical records, and even their names--normal procedure in all schools, both public and private--a violation of their "civil liberties"?

To argue that putting restrictions on welfare provision is a "government intrusion" is like saying people on Social Security shouldn't have to prove their age.

Other conservative opponents claimed that Prop. 187 would lead to a "national identity card." Again: the initiative merely said that those who choose to go on welfare in one form or another in the state of California must provide proof that they are citizens. There is nothing ominous about providing proof of citizenship. And if this discourages people from going on welfare, that's the purpose.

The Washington and New York conservatives could have remained neutral, which itself would have been suspect. Instead, they attempted to defeat a measure ending welfare. In effect, they came out for perpetually increasing spending for non-citizens. In effect, this is the same as lobbying for confiscatory taxation and redistribution to benefit people who are here illegally.

But how, you ask, could any ostensible conservative spin out such a rationale for continuing subsidies, especially to non-citizens? Easy: they don't tell the truth. "We want to be clear and emphatic on this point," said Bennett and Kemp, "we are not in favor of illegal immigrants receiving state or federal welfare benefits."

But a memo dated June 22, 1988, and signed by Kemp during his tenure as HUD Secretary, says the opposite. In response to concerns raised by citizens of Costa Mesa, California, over a HUD-funded hiring hall that catered to illegals, Kemp wrote: "HUD's community development programs do no require citizenship or lawful resident status for eligibility. It is the presumption that the programs benefit both citizens and documented and undocumented aliens." We are furthermore told, in Kemp's best hectoring style, that distinguishing among recipients "on the basis of alienage would be discriminatory."

Kemp and Bennett also asserted that "under current law, illegal immigrants are not eligible to receive welfare benefits." According to the Congressional Research Service, however, illegal residents are currently eligible for more than 100 federal programs, including government loans to business. But these are "not welfare," according to the tortured logic of the Bennett-Kemp memo, "provided such services do not include cash or other income transfers to individual recipients."

In other words, all government expenditures and subsidies, with the sole exception of direct cash payments--including public housing, medical services, food stamps, and government schools--are not only justified, but should be made available to anyone who can get past the Border Patrol.

Kemp and Bennett are associated with a group called "Empower America," which, before coming out in support of forced government welfare for illegal aliens, circulated an article calling for an end to cash subsidies for single mothers. But this suggestion was apparently an abstraction; when the time came to pull the plug, they betrayed their middle-class California organizers, people who have full-time jobs working much harder than Washington thinktankers.

Besides this glorious victory against the welfare state, the Prop. 187 battle clarified the dividing line between Washington and New York conservatives, who flinched when it mattered, and the real right at the grassroots, which is anti-welfare, anti-regulation, anti-central state, and free market to the core. If the spirit of Prop. 187 is to thrive and grow, it will have to depend on the tenacity of independent minds and voices.


Justin Raimondo is author of Reclaiming the American Right


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