By Susan Ferriss
Special to The Free Press
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 5, 1994 -- On the eve of Tuesday's election, Proposition 187 maintains a lead in polls but has lost one of its most valuable public relations tools: a majority of Latino voters.
A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Latino voters surveyed opposed Prop.187, while only 22 per cent said they would vote for the measure to bar illegal immigrants from public schools and health care. Last Wednesday -- in the largest display yet of emerging Latino youth opposition -- some 10,000 Los Angeles-area high school students walked out of classes to protest the measure.
"What is happening is the community was not educated before,'' said Victor Marquez, a San Francisco opponent of Prop. 187 and an attorney with La Raza Centro Legal. "There was not a grass-roots effort going on until recently. All the work that the thousands of volunteers have been doing all over the state in the last few months is really paying off now.''
The poll last week by the Los Angeles Times also showed support among voters in general dropping to 51 percent from 59 percent two weeks earlier. A separate poll by Mark Baldassari and Associates in Irvine conducted October 28 through 31 showed 49 percent in favor, compared to 55 percent a month ago, said Sherry Babitch Jeffe, Claremont College political analyst.
Supporters of Prop. 187 have cited previous polls showing that a majority of Latino voters supported the measure as proof that the measure was not racially divisive.
Jeffe said that some non-Latino voters, perceiving that the measure is racially charged, may be telling pollsters they oppose Prop. 187 when in fact they support it.
"When race is interjected into a campaign, people are less likely to tell the truth," she said.
However, Jeffe said, the upswell of Latino opposition to the measure appears to be genuine -- and a sign that the bruising campaign has damaged race relations in California.
"There are Latinos, particularly older Mexican Americans, who believe 'there is a right way, and a wrong way,'" said Jeffe, quoting from Gov. Wilson's television campaign ads contrasting undocumented Latinos running across the border with people being sworn in as citizens.
"But (Prop.187) is a coming together of the Hispanic community, a realization that it's not just recent immigrants, but any one of them who might not look or act like a 'citizen,' " she said.
Jeffe said "voters were forced to take a second look" at Prop. 187 when conservative Republicans William Bennett and Jack Kemp came out strongly against it last month. Earlier this month, Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush -- son of ex-President George Bush -- also criticized Prop. 187.
Hoping to build on such broad opposition and new momentum in their favor, opponents of Prop. 187 began airing 30-second television ads in Southern California last Wednesday, said Joel Maliniak, a spokesman for Taxpayers Against 187.
Patrick Skain, a San Francisco spokesman for the pro-187 campaign, said his group expected a drop in polls -- but is disappointed with the dramatic decline of Latino support. He attributed the phenomenon to "race-baiting, a play for Mexican nationalism" and "lopsided" Spanish-language television coverage.
Prop. 187 would require public schools and health clinics to ask all children and patients to show proof of legal residency. It would also require that institutions report suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Latino civil rights groups contend that Prop. 187 would unfairly punish children and would subject Latinos to extra scrutiny and harassment by officials trying to find illegal immigrants.
Skain said he does not speak Spanish, but he studied it in high school and has been watching enough Spanish-language coverage to determine that it "distorts the true intent of the measure."
"This initiative was not aimed or has never been aimed at the Latino community," Skain said. "But this message has not been portrayed in the Spanish-language press."
The Spanish-language network Univision contributed $100,000 to Taxpayers Against 187, but denies bias in daily news coverage of the measure. Coverage has been unusually heavy in most Spanish-language media outlets because of the strong interest many Latino immigrants have in the initiative.
Marquez said both Spanish-language and English-language media have done a good job at scrutinizing Prop. 187 and reporting on "what it does and doesn't do. It does nothing to control the border, for example."
"The media cannot be blamed for people seeing beyond the proponents' point of view," he said.
Marquez also attributed the strong current of Latino opposition to Prop. 187 to Wilson's campaign ads showing Latino illegal immigrants running across the Mexican-U.S. border. Some of the ads urge viewers to vote for Prop. 187.
"Race relations are an extremely touchy issue in communities of color," Marquez said. "With his choice of advertising, Wilson has illustrated time and time again how it (Prop. 187) is targeting the Latino community. He's not concentrating on Europeans coming here to overstay their visa permits."