OKLAHOMA CITY —
The exodus of immigrants from the state began in the summer of 2007. Legislators had just passed sweeping anti-immigration reforms and worries ran rampant of how it would affect the Hispanic community.
Edgar Lucero, Hispanic minister at Tahlequah’s South College Church of Christ, said he saw many people in his congregation and the area elect to leave rather than deal with the new laws.
“It had a big effect in a negative way because it caused a lot of fear and insecurity as far being on the street or just going outside to the store,” he said. “But it has calmed down a lot since then.”
Monday marks the three-year anniversary since most of the provisions of House Bill 1804 took effect. The bill, which remains one of the strongest state level anti-immigration policies in the nation, made it illegal to knowingly transport undocumented immigrants and added barriers for illegal immigrants to find employment or apply for certain government benefits.
The controversial law passed with overwhelming legislative support in 2007 despite a chorus of concerns from the Hispanic community and other advocacy groups. Three years later, the impact of the law remains mixed. But some argue the legislation has done little with the exception of the fear it created during its inception.
William P. Velie, an immigration attorney in Norman, said there have been several cases where undocumented immigrants have not been able to receive some government services, such as follow-up health care visits. He attributes that to the new law. However, most of medical care, elementary and secondary education services and federal programs are exempt from HB 1804. Because of this, Velie argues the largest effect has been outside of the scope of the law.
“It created a serious climate of fear amongst people here who are only trying to make a living, and not causing any trouble,” he said. “It is driving a whole population underground, and making them afraid of the authorities that are supposed to be protecting them.”
According to a 2008 Pew Hispanic Study, the state’s Hispanic population is about 279,000 or 8 percent of the state’s demographic. Like Lucero, Velie said he has heard plenty of anecdotal stories of many immigrants leaving the state during the early days of the law’s enactment. Although no hard numbers are available on how the bill might have affected the population, the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimated 15,000 to 25,000 illegal immigrants left the Tulsa area in the time around the bill’s passage.
The bill’s author, Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, said he estimates the legislation saved taxpayers hundreds of million of dollars in the past three years. He said when illegal immigrants leave, taxpayers no longer have to pay for their subsidized health care and other government programs. He also cited a change that made the Oklahoma Health Care Authority require a “lawful presence test” before it awarded benefits as a specific example where money is being saved.
“I think it did accomplish a great deal,” he said. “With that said, I think this was a great first step, but it did not cover everything that can or should be done to promote real immigration reform on the state level.”
In terms of law enforcement, much of the bill’s impact has been minimal. One of the toughest portions of the law, which made it a state crime to knowingly transport, harbor or shelter undocumented immigrants, has rarely been enforced. According to a study by the National Council of La Raza on the effects of the law, only three bill-related arrests were reported through February 2009.
Legal challenges also have diluted some of the potential ramifications of the measure. A 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barred the state from enforcing the provision that would have required businesses working with private contractors to verify the legal status of their employees. Without documentation, the private business would be required to withhold state income tax from the independent contractor’s pay at the highest possible income tax rate.
Carol Helm, director of Immigration Reform for Oklahoma Now, said she calls the passage of the 2007 legislation “excellent.” But she admits its impact has not lived up to its potential. Helm blames the state’s judiciary agencies for not doing enough to enforce the laws.
“If it had been enforced by the district attorneys and sheriffs in our 77 counties, Oklahoma in my opinion would not be in a budget deficit right now because illegals would not be welcomed here,” she said.
Attempts for ‘Arizona plus’
Terrill said he aims to introduce immigration bills during next year’s legislative session that would be stricter than House Bill 1804. This includes his plan for what he calls “Arizona plus.”
Terrill said the legislation would mirror and then expand upon the controversial legislation that Arizona passed early this year. Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 requires certain immigrants to have documents at all times and encourages policies for law enforcement agencies to crackdown on illegal immigrants.
In addition to this, Terrill said he would like Oklahoma to have the ability to seize property of people who illegally employ, transport or aid immigrants. He said this would give law enforcement agencies an economic incentive to crack down on illegal immigrants.
New efforts by anti-immigration proponents can be seen when last month, Rep. Charles Key, R-Oklahoma City, announced he is joining a taskforce to prevent so-called “anchor babies” — children who are born in the United States from parents who are illegal immigrants — from obtaining legal residence status and assistance from state-funded programs. Key said the nationwide taskforce would help him to consider whether to file or back legislation next session that would challenge the interpretation of the 14th Amendment on the state level.
Eva Arambula, who helps run the Durango Mexican Store in Norman, said she worries that legal and illegal immigrants alike could be targeted if the state continues to pursue strict anti-immigration policies. With her son, Cesar, translating her Spanish, she said racial profiling is a concern and people “just trying to make a living” could be targeted as criminals.
Velie added society would be negatively affected if immigrants fear contacting law enforcement authorities or seeking medical care because they worry they could be punished or deported.
“If someone’s husband is beating them or they have knowledge of a serious crime, they may do nothing,” he said. “They know they could lose everything that they have worked so hard to build here in an instant. And that is the danger when you alienate and disfranchise an entire group of people.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI. He can be reached at email@example.com.