Oklahoma passes tough anti-illegal immigration law

May 15, 2009

Tough Okla. law on illegal immigrants called model
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Unlike Texas, the state has no Latino lawmakers; its percentage of Latino residents is far smaller.

While a stack of anti-illegal immigration bills died in the Texas Legislature this year, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a law that cuts off illegal immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses and many government benefits.

“The state ought not to be in the business of providing benefits to people who are not here legally,” said Oklahoma Rep. Randy Terrill, the Republican who wrote the bill. Terrill will speak to an anti-illegal immigration group in Dallas tonight.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 1,000 immigration-related bills and resolutions have been filed in the 50 states. Some Texas cities have passed anti-illegal immigration ordinances.

Oklahoma’s House Bill 1804, signed by the governor in May, is considered one of the toughest immigration laws in the nation. Among other things, it will:

End illegal immigrants’ access to state benefits, including college scholarships.

Empower law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they arrest for felonies and drunken driving.

Consider illegal immigrants charged with felonies and some other crimes a flight risk and deny them bail.

Allow fired workers to sue if their former employers have an illegal immigrant doing the same or similar work.

Will a tough law in Oklahoma push illegal immigrants into Texas?

“Boy, I sure hope so,” Terrill said.

Hispanic groups have their doubts. Immigrants become too attached to places where they put down roots to be dislodged by new laws, said Evan Bacalao, a research associate at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. If anything, he said, the legislation will push Hispanics to become more active in state politics.

Texas’ difference

Texas and Oklahoma share a border, but their political environments could hardly be more different.

A little more than a third of Texas’ 23.5 million residents are Hispanic, and their representation is organized into powerful interest groups.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s San Antonio office keeps a close eye on the Legislature. And 43 of Texas’ 182 lawmakers, including some who are not Hispanic, are members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

In 2001, Texas became the first state to offer illegal immigrants in-state tuition and state financial aid for college.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said many members of the group are “desperately seeking workers,” so they joined Hispanic lawmakers to oppose anti-illegal immigration bills this year.

Employers have said huge labor shortages exist in industries such as trucking, welding and restaurants.

In Oklahoma, no such alliance exists.

Hispanics comprised only 6 percent of the state’s 3.5 million residents in 2005, according to the Census Bureau, and the Oklahoma Legislature has no Hispanic lawmakers.

“The Latino community in Oklahoma is new,” said Rey Madrid, Oklahoma state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The Oklahoma State Chamber took a neutral position on Terrill’s bill when it was changed from requiring employers to screen all employees for citizenship or immigration status to screening all new hires, spokesman Mike Seney said.

Public opinion had sufficiently jelled, Terrill said. “House Bill 1804 is a model bill for the state and even the nation, if they will just take the hint,” he said.

Oklahoma is not alone

Other states are also cracking down on illegal immigration.

In Colorado, bills signed into law last year cut off welfare benefits to illegal immigrants and require people applying for professional licenses to show proof of citizenship or legal immigration status.

The Georgia Legislature passed a bill last year that, among other things, requires a person to show proof of legal status or citizenship before receiving certain state benefits, such as welfare, and requires employers to participate in a federal work-authorization program that checks people’s citizenship or immigration status.

And in Texas, Farmers Branch voters approved an ordinance May 12 that would ban landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. But the ordinance has been challenged in court by a coalition of Hispanic groups and businesses.

The strong demand for such legislation comes from illegal immigrants’ perceived burden on state and local governments, said Tony Payan, a University of Texas at El Paso political science professor.

“I think the [states] are saying, ‘Look, we cannot bear the burden on our taxpaying citizens when the benefits are going elsewhere,’” Payan said. “That is what really stings local communities.”

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who filed bills to stem illegal immigration, said that’s what constituents tell him.

“Fifty percent of my e-mails have to do with illegal aliens,” Berman said. “People are outraged that nothing is being done.”