November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

THREE YEARS AGO, BARBARA COE, A records clerk for the Anaheim, Calif., police department, tried to help out a disabled family friend. At his request she went to an Orange County social services center to discuss his state medical coverage. “It seemed like every country in the world was represented there,” says Coe, 60. “There were three windows for Hispanic speakers, two for Asians and one for English speakers—and that one was closed.” Then she discovered that though cash-strapped California was about to end her friend’s supplemental coverage, illegal immigrants were eligible for certain public services. “I came home and I was outraged,” she says.

That outrage turned Coe into a political activist—and a successful one at that. On Nov. 8, by 59 to 41 percent, Californians passed a controversial, Coe-inspired ballot initiative—known as Proposition 187—denying illegal immigrants access to state-funded social services except for emergency medical treatment. Reaction to the measure was swift. The next day, Gov. Pete Wilson, who had ardently supported the proposition, announced that undocumented residents were to be banned from using state-funded prenatal services and nursing homes. That same day there were scattered protests throughout the state, and eight lawsuits were filed challenging the measure’s provision to exclude 300,000 immigrant children from public schools. Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles temporarily blocked implementation of the measure, pending another hearing. Experts say it will be at least two years before the legal tangle is settled.

Some contend Proposition 187—which has inspired similar anti-immigrant movements in Texas and Florida—punishes those most in need of help, including the sick and children who have no control over their legal status. “It sends a message that we are stepping backward,” says Juan Gutierrez, head of One Stop Immigration, a legal-aid group. “It’s political opportunism at the expense of minorities.”

As it happens, Coe could be termed a member of a minority group. She grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the daughter of a part-Sioux cattle-ranching father and an Irish-American mother. She moved to Orange County in 1951 with her late husband, Jack, an engineer. “I took one look at the palm trees and the Pacific and said, ‘I’m home,’ ” she recalls. Proposition 187 was her first foray into politics, but it may not be her last. “A lot of people ask me what I’ll do next, but I don’t know,” Coe says. “I checked the books, and David did not jot down what he did after he slew Goliath.”

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