Updated September 15, 1999
CRS Report for Congress
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California's Proposition 187: A Brief Overview
American Law Division
On September 13, 1999, a U.S. district judge approved an agreement to end
litigation challenging California's Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative to deny illegal
aliens state benefits and to require reporting of illegal alien applicants for benefits to
federal immigration officials. This agreement effectively continues earlier court-imposed
restraints on implementing Prop 187. Meanwhile, federal law enacted in 1996 denies
illegal aliens most state-provided benefits funded in part by the federal government and
authorizes California to deny illegal aliens many other benefits that would have been
denied had Prop 187 been implemented. In a reversal of policy, however, California has
now restored state-financed prenatal care for illegal aliens and is also considering easing
other restrictions that it had imposed after the 1996 law.
In November 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187 by a 59%-41%
margin. This initiative broadly denied illegal aliens state-funded services, including public
education and non-emergency health care. It also required state authorities to facilitate
the identification and removal of illegal aliens by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS). The State of California’s Legislative Analyst had estimated that Prop 187
would reduce net state outlays about $100-200 million per year.
A federal district court temporarily halted Prop 187's restrictions on benefits in
December 1994, and this freeze was continued under a November 1995 preliminary
injunction. This 1995 decision, LULAC v. Wilson, also overturned most of Prop 187's
enforcement procedures. The court-ordered halt of Prop 187 finally became ripe for
appeal in March 1998 when the presiding judge issued a permanent injunction. However,
new California Governor Gray Davis decided to seek a mediated end to the suit rather than
to pursue an appeal. Subsequently, the parties to the suit (including the state) agreed to
maintain the effects of the injunction, the presiding judge approved the agreement on
September 13, 1999, and some proponents of Prop 187 have stated that they will now try
to appeal the injunction on their own.
While litigation on Prop 187 was pending, the Personal Responsibility and Work
Opportunity Act (PRWOA) became federal law (P.L. 104-193) on August 22, 1996. This
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major welfare reform in part denies illegal aliens most federal, state, and local public
benefits (not including elementary and secondary education, which remains available under
the Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe (457 U.S. 202)). Existing state laws that
allowed benefits contrary to PRWOA were preempted, but PRWOA also authorized the
states to enact new laws to provide illegal aliens state-funded benefits.
After PRWOA, California officials identified more than 200 programs from which
they planned to bar illegal aliens. Thus, PRWOA appeared likely to result in curtailing
many benefits that would have been restricted under Prop 187, with the major (and
expensive) exception of elementary and secondary education. Nevertheless, the 1998
elections resulted in a new official attitude toward denying illegal aliens public services.
California is again giving illegal aliens access to state-funded prenatal care. Also, bills are
before the legislature to allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers' licenses, qualify for in-state
college tuition, and reclaim certain other benefits denied them the past several years.
At the congressional level, frustration over the delayed implementation of Prop 187
in part led the House to pass bills twice (once during each of the 104th and 105th
Congresses) to put court challenges to state ballot initiatives on a faster judicial track. The
Senate failed to take action on the bills, however.
Contents of Prop 187
Prop 187 addressed the following areas:
Public education. Public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools may not
admit a student who is not “authorized under federal law to be present in the United
States.” Elementary and secondary schools also must verify the status of the parent or
guardian of each child enrolled or seeking enrollment. Whenever an individual whose
status is required to be verified is determined or reasonably suspected to be violating
federal immigration laws, notice is to be provided to state authorities and INS.
Public social services. An individual may not receive a public social service until
verified as a citizen or a “lawfully admitted” alien. Applicants determined or reasonably
suspected to be violating immigration law are to be warned and reported to state
authorities and INS.
Publicly-funded health care services. No applicant may receive publicly-funded
“health care services” until citizenship or immigration status has been verified. Whenever
a publicly-funded health facility determines or reasonably suspects that an applicant is an
unlawful alien, the applicant, and the State Director of Health Services, the State Attorney
General, and INS, are to be notified.
Other provisions. State law enforcement agencies must verify the legal status of
arrested individuals suspected of being illegal aliens and report those appearing to lack
lawful status. Contrary local laws or policies are prohibited. Prop 187 also makes it a
felony punishable up to 5 years to make, distribute, or use false documents intended to
conceal an individual’s true status as an illegal alien. Unlike other provisions of Prop 187,
the federal district court held that these criminal provisions were not preempted by federal
law and may be enforced.
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