By M. Scott Carter
The Journal Record
Posted: 10:13 PM Wednesday, June 15, 2011
OKLAHOMA CITY – More than 120 years ago the state of Oklahoma was birthed by a group of opportunistic settlers and illegal immigrants.
Since that time, more immigrants, including Germans refugees of World War II and thousands of Asians who came in the 1980s seeking to escape political unrest, have made Oklahoma their home.
Now, new waves of immigrants from Mexico and Central America are crossing state borders seeking economic and social opportunities.
Getting here is difficult. Staying has become even harder.
With the passage of House Bill 1804 in 2007, the Oklahoma Legislature sent a harsh message to its Central American neighbors: We don’t want you.
“I’m going to continue to create laws that discourage these people from coming here,” said state Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City. “The fact is they are not wanted.”
Shortey and fellow Republican state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, have been at the forefront of Oklahoma’s legislative efforts to send undocumented workers back home. In late 2006, Terrill began work on new immigration laws, citing increases in crime and welfare spending and inaction by the federal government as reasons for his proposals.
“The federal government’s inaction has turned every state into a border state,” Terrill said at the time. “You are going to see an increasing number of states doing what Oklahoma has done.”
Oklahoma, Terrill said, was seeing its resources drained by waves of undocumented workers. He said flagrant illegal immigration has threatened the very integrity of the republic.
After being defeated in his attempts to pass anti-immigration legislation in 2006, Terrill tried again in 2007, authoring House Bill 1804.
That measure became law in 2007.
Terrill’s effort not only changed the political landscape in Oklahoma, it pushed him into the national spotlight. As HB 1804 worked its way through the Legislature, Terrill appeared on several national television programs and was quoted in publications across the country.
Terrill’s efforts also drew praise from anti-immigration groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and spawned similar legislation in other states
In 2010, Arizona lawmakers developed a package of laws that went even further than Oklahoma’s anti-immigrant legislation. Not to be outdone, Oklahoma lawmakers returned to the Capitol this year hoping to up the ante.
Both Terrill and Shortey said additional legislation was necessary because Arizona’s new laws had driven the immigration issue straight down Interstate 40 to Oklahoma.
“I’m not just saying that (immigrants are not wanted) because I believe it, I’m saying that because my district believes it,” Shortey said. “These people are not wanted. The fact is, if they come here in the dark of night and under the table, they have no legal protection.”
Both lawmakers introduced new anti-immigration legislation, which they described as “Arizona plus.”
Had those proposals passed, law enforcement officers would have been given the authority to confiscate vehicles and other property they believed were used in the trafficking of undocumented aliens. Another measure would have eliminated the federal citizenship guarantee for children born on American soil.
Shortey said he had no personal animosity against immigrants, but was simply doing what the residents of his district wanted. He said his district was being adversely affected and that residents were worried about getting shot by “illegal aliens who are in a gang.”
“The debate about illegal immigration has grown more and more intense,” he said. “In my district most of the residents are white. Most are in their 60s. They are frustrated. They want to leave. Are they racists? Well, some of them are.”
Yet even as many lawmakers push for harsher immigration laws, the resistance is growing. This year members of the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Community Development Agency and even The State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber worked against Terrill and Shortey’s legislation.
In a message to members announcing a lawsuit against HB 1804, chamber officials said they were concerned by the unreasonable burdens placed on Oklahoma businesses by HB 1804 because it put them in the impossible position of having to comply with conflicting federal and state laws.
“We share many of the Legislature’s concerns,” a message from The State Chamber of Oklahoma said. “But illegal immigration is clearly a national problem in need of a national solution.”
Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said his organization actively opposed new restrictions on businesses and some lawmakers were trying to score political points by pushing a contentious issue like immigration.
“We want to emphasize that we do not support illegal immigrants or hiring illegal immigrants,” Williams said to the Associated Press. “But it’s already against the law, so passing another law doesn’t make it any more against the law. The immigration problem is a federal problem. For us to try and solve a problem we didn’t create at the expense of making our businesses uncompetitive, that’s just not a good idea.”
Terrill countered that the chamber’s efforts against HB 1804 and those against the Arizona-plus legislation were driven by a more selfish reason.
“The fix is in, and it’s been in for some time,” Terrill said. “The truth of the matter is that the reason they’re lobbying against these bills is to preserve their access to cheap, illegal alien slave labor to the detriment of U.S. citizen workers.”
Shortey sees the issue a little differently.
“We have already created a subclass of people,” he said. “These laws are the only way to discourage them from coming here in the first place. We have people who feel more protected by gangs than police. That scares me.”
Still, for many, immigrants who come to Oklahoma today are no different than those who founded the state more than a century ago.
“One hundred years ago, we had the last great wave of immigration,” said former Census Bureau director Steve Murdock. “It’s the same thing you see today. If you don’t have immigration then you’re not growing.”
M. Scott Carter,
Capitol Bureau Reporter
The Journal Record
(405) 278-2838 – Downtown
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