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Denying Immigrants Help Is Not the Answer

California's move to cut social services for illegal aliens is unconstitutional - and won't solve the real problem

CALIFORNIA'S Proposition 187, which would deny illegal immigrants medical and educational services, will not stem the tide of impoverished Mexicans (and others). They don't go to California to receive social benefits; they go to work and earn a decent wage, period.

In terms of the national interests of the United States, Proposition 187 is just plain stupid.

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So California is going to withhold immunization shots from the children of illegal immigrants? Does Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who supports the measure, think contagious diseases would respect citizenship or migratory status?

Why is Governor Wilson wasting California taxpayers' money with this futile attack?

A dozen years ago, the US Supreme Court decided children who are illegal aliens have a constitutional right to free public education. It upheld two rulings by the US Court of Appeals, which had declared unconstitutional a Texas law cutting off state funds from local school districts for educating children who had illegally entered the US. Does Wilson really think Proposition 187 will be upheld - or is it purely political grandstanding that will cost Californians dearly?

Racism is bound to occur in enforcing Proposition 187. Only those with Latino features are likely to be questioned. We have a daughter (with a ``green card'') living in San Francisco. Her name is Marivi Lerdo de Tejada (you can't get more Mexican than that). She would never be challenged because she's whiter than white: Spanish mixed with Russian, Lithuanian, and Irish. But she is acutely aware that Mexican friends who have the same legal status as she are in danger of harassment solely because they look Mexican. Governor, that's not the American way.

If the purpose of Proposition 187 is to keep out illegal aliens, it simply won't work. Whole towns in Mexico - mainly in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Queretaro - are inhabited by women, children, and the elderly: There are no able-bodied men because they are all in Gringo-landia.

The men who become the despised illegal aliens are among the most courageous men alive. Although uneducated, they are smart, ambitious, and the ultimate risk-takers. Think of the guts it takes to leave one's family and culture behind to go to a foreign land where the language, food, and all other customs are unknown - where one knows that humiliation is far more likely than acceptance. These men are to be admired; they work hard and send the money back home.

When the money orders arrive, they help alleviate the crushing poverty of the Mexican countryside. On the other hand, they have the adverse tendency to let the Mexican government off the hook. Job creation is not the emergency it would be otherwise.

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UNTIL recently, the porous border has served the interests of the governments of both the US and Mexico. Not only was it an escape valve for the Mexican economy, but it provided low-paid manpower for labor considered beneath the dignity of the US work force. And it kept produce prices down.

Apparently, things have changed. With the demise of the cold war and the partial collapse of California's defense industry, the natives are so restless that they seem to want to go into the fields themselves. We shall see if they are eager to work for the wages paid to Chicanos.

Nationalism being what it is, the US has the right, just as East Germany did in 1961, to close its borders. Perhaps the pressures on the border are too great - just as they were in Berlin that August. Nowhere else in the world is there a 2,000-mile border where the average wage on one side is seven times that on the other. Maybe Attorney General Janet Reno is obliged to plug the holes and prevent illegal immigration as much as possible. And maybe if the escape valve is shut, the Mexican government will be compelled to think more about economic reform and wealth redistribution in order to keep its best workers gainfully employed.

But it's a real gamble because parts of Mexico are volatile at the moment. The economy is stagnant, if not regressive. The promised fruits of the North American Free Trade Agreement have yet to be tasted by most. Democracy has not been realized, illegal weapons are coming in at an alarming rate, fratricide has infested the ruling party, the Chiapas turmoil continues, and the stability of the peso is in question.

The last thing the US wants is violence on its southern border. Closing it risks strife. With any significant violence, there is the probability that US businesses will lose confidence. If that happens, there goes NAFTA.

So, careful, Janet Reno. While closing the border is neither immoral nor illegal - as compared with Proposition 187 - its consequences must be thoroughly analyzed and weighed. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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