Frustrated with the federal government's response to illegal immigration, Oklahoma is poised to become the next state to pass a tough law targeting illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them.
A sweeping measure moving through the Legislature would deny welfare benefits, in-state college tuition rates and numerous state subsidies to those in the country illegally. It would also empower police to detain illegal immigrants and require businesses that do work for the state to prove that their employees are legally in the country.
The legislation, written with help from a Washington, D.C., legal organization that opposes illegal immigration, comes after passage of similar laws last year in Colorado and Georgia. Like legislators in those states, the leader of the Oklahoma effort said he was tired of waiting for Washington politicians to fix a problem that costs his state millions of dollars a year.
"Illegal aliens will not come here if there are no jobs waiting for them. They will not come if there are no taxpayer subsidies. And they certainly won't come if they know they will be physically detained until they are deported," said the bill's author, Republican state Rep. Randy Terrill. "Oklahoma is obviously not the wealthiest state in the union. We can't afford to become a welfare state for the rest of the world."
The legislation passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives 88-9 last month, despite opposition from religious groups and some of the state's most powerful business lobbyists. One of the lawmakers who spoke most passionately against it, Republican Rep. Shane Jett, who is married to a Brazilian immigrant, abstained from the vote. The bill is scheduled for a vote today in a state Senate committee; if approved there, it would advance to the Senate floor.
"The business community is very concerned about the bill as it stands right now, said Mike Seney, a senior vice president with the state chamber of commerce. "This bill needs work."
Unlike hard-line immigration legislation in Texas, which is stalled in committee, Democrats and Republicans said the Oklahoma legislation has the momentum to reach the desk of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
Henry ran television ads portraying himself as tough on illegal immigration during his re-election campaign last year, but has not taken a position on the measure. His office did not return several requests for comment last week.
Supporters, and even some detractors, said the bill may be too popular for him to reject.
"I've never seen an issue like this in my nine years here, where [opponents] want to talk to you about it but don't want anyone to know," said state Sen. Kenneth Corn, a Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the legislation. "The sheer number of phone calls being received by members is just huge. This is a main street issue at the coffee shop. I would say this vote is going to have consequences on the 2008 elections."
Like much of the nation, Oklahoma, home to about 3.5 million people, is embroiled in a divisive debate over the consequences of illegal immigration.
While the state's foreign-born population is still estimated at less than 5% according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has doubled over the past decade because of an influx of legal and illegal Latino immigrants. Latinos are changing the demographic makeup of a state that has been populated almost entirely by whites, African Americans and Native Americans.
Lawmakers said internal tracking polls have shown immigration jump into a top five concern for many Oklahoma voters, who worry that their tax dollars are being used to help foreigners in the state illegally.
Terrill's legislation was being tweaked last week to win more votes in the state Senate. But as currently written, the bill would deny numerous services to people who could not show they were in the country legally. It would also require proof of citizenship or legal residence to obtain a driver's license or other state identification.
The bill would make it a state crime to harbor an illegal immigrant, and empower state patrol officers and other police to detain anyone they found to be in the country illegally until they could be deported.
It would require local and state agencies, and contractors who do business with them, to verify their employees are in the country legally. And it would allow laid-off workers to file an unfair labor practices claim seeking lost wages if their former employer hired illegal immigrants.
Catholic Charities, a group that assists needy individuals regardless of their immigration status, is concerned that the legislation will make it a crime for aid workers to take battered women to shelters; it wants lawmakers to allow nonprofits to harbor illegal immigrants for humanitarian reasons.
The group is also worried that denying in-state college tuition rates to residents who cannot prove they are in the country legally would create social problems in Oklahoma by disenfranchising a generation of youngsters who followed their parents into the country.