"Inhumane," "harsh" and "heavy-handed" are some of the words being used by community and Hispanic groups in Tulsa and from across the state in condemning the "comprehensive and sweeping" immigration reform legislation under consideration this year at the state Capitol.
For those who follow the exploits of the state Legislature, this scenario probably seems like a replay of last session's events leading up to the demise of Rep. Randy Terrill's "Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2006" and, with that, the end of that season's considerable sound and fury over illegal immigration.
After several appearances in the national news media and much deliberation among fellow lawmakers during the interim, Terrill, R-Moore, is back this year with another version of the act, and a similar controversy is ensuing.
To the alarm of critics and the welcome of supporters, however, several key differences might just lead to a different outcome this time around.
One major difference is that the political environment at the state Capitol is now much less hostile to the bill's survival. The Senate in which the bill died last year is no longer controlled by the opposing party, but split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Also, the measure has a new sponsor in the Senate: Tulsa's own District 35 Republican Sen. James Williamson.
Williamson said he decided to sign on as the bill's principal author in the Senate this year because "it's been an interest of mine for many years, and my constituents have indicated concern over the lack of action by the federal government."
Another key difference to this season of illegal immigration hullabaloo, according to Rev. Victor Orta of Tulsa's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is that this year's proposed legislation has "got more teeth to it" and is "more severe."
"This is pretty dramatically different," said Williamson of his bill.
House Bill 1804 has been endorsed by two Washington, D.C.-based immigration reform advocacy groups--the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI)--as "the most meaningful immigration reform bill in the nation."
While it still retains many of the features of its previous incarnation, the 2007 version has indeed evolved somewhat, for better or for worse.
Terrill said the bill is substantially the same as last year's version, but its language has been tweaked for precision.
"Topical-wise, it's virtually identical, but it's a much more carefully drafted and calibrated piece of legislation," he said.
Like last year's miscarried House Bill 3119, this package of proposed reforms contains provisions intended to prevent identity theft by illegal immigrants by making proof of citizenship or legal residence a condition of receiving government-issued identification cards, as well as a condition to receive public services, such as welfare, food stamps and non-emergency medical care.
The measure would also modify Oklahoma's laws to mirror federal immigration laws, thereby giving state and local law enforcement agencies the authority to enforce them. Through the use of funds Terrill hopes they will receive in a federal grant, state and local law enforcement agencies would also cooperate with federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration laws.
Also like last year's attempt, the new law would penalize employers of illegal immigrants.
"Illegal aliens won't come here if the jobs aren't here for them," said Terrill.
One of the main provisions touted by its authors is that the bill would require public employers to use the federal government's Basic Pilot Program to verify the citizenship status of newly hired employees.
The BPP involves verification checks of federal databases, and can be used by employers free of charge.
Opponents of immigration reform proposals like Terrill and Williamson's have historically called them "discriminatory," sometimes even going as far as alleging that they spring from racist attitudes against Hispanics.
However, Terrill said mandatory use of the BPP would actually serve to reduce instances of discrimination by distinguishing between those who are in the U.S. legally and those who are not, without employers being able to take skin color or accents into account.
"This system provides a quick, fair and streamlined way for employers to check on the legal status of new hires, and it ensures that all new hires are treated equally, without regard to things like ethnicity," the lawmaker said.
Of course, not everyone agrees with his assessment of his proposal's fairness.
"The system Representative Terrill's bill legislates that we use has a notorious track record for inaccurately flagging people as illegal residents when it is not true," exclaimed Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, when the bill was heard on the House floor in early March.
"Any one of us can run afoul of these verification systems and end up having to defend our freedoms because of this unjust law," she continued, adding that enforced use of the BPP "would endanger all of us and our freedoms."
The "notorious track record" to which the impassioned lawmaker referred is a 2004 report to Congress by the Department of Homeland Security on the performance of the BPP.
According to the DHS evaluation, the most serious problem with the program's verification systems is that "they too frequently resulted in work-authorized employees receiving tentative nonconfirmations" and that "employers, employees and the federal government incurred costs in the process of resolving these erroneous findings."
Based on other findings within the report, Hamilton's warning that use of the Basic Pilot Program will "endanger everyone's freedom" might be a bit of an overstatement, but so might Terrill's assurances that it will guarantee freedom from discrimination.
"Since foreign-born employees were more likely to receive erroneous tentative non-confirmations than were U.S.-born employees, these accuracy problems were also a source of unintentional discrimination against foreign-born employees," the report reads.
However, Terrill explained that the language of his bill takes the systems' flaws into account so that only positive non-confirmations, rather than tentative, would work against the potential employee.
Sound, Fury and Partisanship
While Hamilton and others, rightly or wrongly, have no shortage of criticism for specific elements of Terrill and Williamson's bill, the bulk of their disapproval is for what they perceive to be the spirit behind it.
"As it now stands, House Bill 1804 is a hateful measure from the first sentence," asserted Hamilton. "It starts with language scapegoating one segment of our population and holding them responsible for all the ills of our society."
"We must not ever equate citizenship with personhood and use it as a way of violating human rights, endangering lives or practicing unjust discrimination," she continued.
"This is in direct contradiction of everything America stands for. Human beings are always human beings, whether they are American citizens or not," added Hamilton.
The first sentence of the bill reads, "The State of Oklahoma finds that illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state and that illegal immigration is encouraged by public agencies within this state that provide public benefits without verifying immigration status."
That "economic hardship" is, in House Speaker Lance Cargill's words, "a hidden tax on hardworking families in this state."
The Republican from Harrah added that illegal immigrants are "costing us hundreds of millions of dollars a year."
Citing figures from a House interim study conducted last summer and fall, Terrill said there is a $200 million direct cost to the state of Oklahoma by illegal aliens accessing public benefits.
Much of the testimony for the study came from Steve Thomas of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, who attested that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye when illegal immigrants sought and received services, and that his own job came under threat when he spoke out against it and advised non-citizens of the agency's reporting requirements.
The figure cited by Terrill was provided by FAIR special projects director Jack Martin.
He estimated the illegal alien population in Oklahoma in 2005 to have been approximately 83,000, which would have cost the state $207 million in incarceration, emergency medical treatment, education and other costs.
Martin emphasized, though, that his figures were estimates based on estimates using data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Much of the language and intent of House Bill 1804 came at Martin's suggestion.
While Terrill and his House colleagues were conducting their study, lawmakers on the other side of the Capitol rotunda were at work on their own investigation through the newly created Senate Task Force on Oklahoma Illegal Immigration Issues, and came to vastly different conclusions.
"Maybe we don't have a huge dilemma here," said panel member Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah.
After hearing from a number of speakers, Wilson concluded, "Nothing seems significant on the cost side of things."
Contrary to Thomas' testimony that illegal immigrants routinely access public benefits, his boss said no such thing was happening.
"We generally believe they are not participating," said Oklahoma DHS director Howard Hendrick.
To come to a government agency seeking benefits is to risk discovery by authorities and deportation, Hendrick said--a risk he doesn't believe many illegal aliens would take.
Those illegals who do access services do so through identity theft, he said, and federal rules only require a person be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement when there is an "affirmative determination" that he or she is in the country illegally.
In those instances when illegal aliens are reported to ICE, Hendrick said, "Typically, I'm told not much happens because they're so understaffed."
The Senate task force quickly came under heavy GOP fire for only including Democrats in its membership.
"The exclusion of Republican lawmakers casts doubt on whether this task force will look for legitimate solutions to the illegal immigration problem or whether this is merely a political exercise aimed at getting publicity for vulnerable Democrat legislators and Governor Henry," said Sen. Jim Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, in September last year when the task force hearing took place, which happened to be two months before the general election.
Tom Daxon, chairman of Oklahoma's Republican Party, speculated that Sen. Daisy Lawler, D-Comanche, was chosen to lead the panel in order to offset criticism from within her district for blocking an amendment for immigration reform offered by Williamson last year.
Since then, the general elections have come and gone and Lawler has been voted out of office by her constituents and replaced with Republican Sen. Anthony Sykes, thereby contributing to the Democrats' loss of majority power in the Senate.
Also in the aftermath of the November elections, Williamson has taken a more active role in his party's immigration reform efforts by sponsoring Terrill's bill, both out of his own interest and at the behest of his constituents in Tulsa.
(Incidentally, Lawler's replacement is a co-author on the bill, along with two Democrats on the Senate side and two on the House side, including Tulsa's freshman Rep. Eric Proctor of District 77.)
Not all of Williamson's constituents are happy about his immigration reform proposals, though.
In particular, after House Bill 1804's passage from the House to the Senate on March 7, Orta and other members of the Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have been meeting with other community leaders and organizations from across the state and the nation to discuss ways organize their opposition to "the inhumane immigration reform being debated in our state Legislature," he said.
When asked which aspects of House Bill 1804 he found to be "inhumane," Chamber member Ed Martinez said, "The idea of separating families . . . ," referring to the mass deportations he expects to ensue if the bill becomes law.
"I understand the whole legal context of this, but I know of a family whose father has just been deported, and the mother is about to be, and they have three American kids," he explained. "If we have mass deportations, what happens in situations like that? Will they become wards of the state? Which state agency is prepared to take all of them in? It's unrealistic to deport 12 million people."
Martinez said public support for such drastic measures comes from the general public's lack of familiarity with Hispanics.
"It's just fear of the unknown, but Hispanics aren't here to do anything but make a living and take care of their families, but guys like Terrill try to stoke that fear," he said.
Terrill and Williamson have both denied that the scenario predicted by Martinez would result if their measure became law.
"There are no mass deportations in this bill," said Terrill. "It would be unnecessary, anyway, because illegal aliens will not come to Oklahoma once you cut off the jobs that bring them here."
"This bill doesn't do that; a federal bill may do that, but this doesn't," concurred Williamson about the prospects for mass deportations. The unfortunate part of illegal immigration, though, is that it creates families with mixed status."
"I guess their concept is to ignore the problem--I suspect they'd have that same reaction to anything we'd propose," he added.
As far as proposals on the state level go, Williamson might be right. Orta, Martinez and their associates insist that immigration reform should be handled by the federal government, not the state.
"Yes, we want to stop illegal immigration," said Orta. "It must stop--it's not good for us, nor for them, and we are frustrated that Congress' prolonging of this has resulted in cities and towns taking the law into their own hands," he continued.
Reforms on the federal level, though, should not "criminalize" illegal immigrants, Orta said, but should give them "opportunities for a path toward citizenship" if they meet certain requirements, such as passing a criminal background check, being gainfully employed, pay back taxes and be enrolled in English courses.
"They can't simply be deported," he reiterated. "The economy would collapse because it's dependent on them," he added.
Orta said he would also favor legislation penalizing employers of undocumented workers.
"They exploit them and it's not fair," he said.
Martinez said a common form that exploitation takes is for employers in the U.S. to hire illegal Mexican immigrants and then report them to immigration authorities when the work is finished so they don't have to pay them.
"The dog that guards the yard has more rights than the undocumented worker who cuts the grass," he said.
Orta also was asked which aspects of House Bill 1804 he finds "inhumane."
He pointed to a portion of the bill that would repeal a 2003 law that made illegal aliens eligible to attend public colleges and universities by paying in-state tuition instead of the more expensive rates for non-residents.
"At this time, it's a minimal group" taking advantage of the provision, Orta said, but "many more are coming of age. Why penalize them because of what their parents did? They're trying to better themselves."
"That is one of the provisions that I am thoroughly reviewing and might come to some middle ground," said Williamson when asked about this "inhumane" aspect of the bill.
"I opposed the giving of in-state tuition to illegal immigrants before, but it's already happened," he added.
Reconsideration of the in-state tuition repeal is just one aspect of the work Williamson has ahead of him as he prepares for the bill's hearing in the Senate.
"It needs some work to make it a good balance," he said.
"I am open to hearing concern on any provision of this, but one thing I do want to say, though, is that I'm not ever going to be providing taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants," Williamson said.
He also said he is unwilling to bend on the portions of his law that would penalize employers of illegals.
"I feel strongly that employers who are totally ignoring the law need to be punished, but those that are acting in good faith--I want to support them totally," he said.
Last year's incarnation of the "Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act" was farther along in the legislative process when it died at the hands of Democratic opposition than is this year's at the moment.
Last year's version passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 63-24, as opposed to the "overwhelming bipartisan support" (as described by Terrill) enjoyed by this year's, which passed 88-9.
While the "yea" votes far exceeded the Republicans' numbers, the "nays" were all cast by Democrats, including Tulsa's District 72 Rep. Darrell Gilbert.
At present, the bill has not been assigned to a Senate committee for a hearing.
Last year, Terrill's bill had been assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee shortly after its passage from the House, which Republicans have traditionally considered to be the graveyard for such high-profile GOP bills due to its chairmanship by Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, who has long been renowned for his liberal ideology.
After a public outcry from community and Hispanic groups, the bill's principal Senate author, Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo, asked Cain that the bill not be heard, saying it "goes way too far" and that it was "exceedingly harsh."
Terrill, though, called Rabon's move a "face-saving measure" undertaken because Cain had indicated plans to kill the legislation, and Rabon didn't want to be attached to a failed bill.
More or Less of the Same
This year's sequel has so far greatly resembled the original installment of "Oklahoma Immigration Reform," except that the stage on which it is set is vastly different: term-limited Cain has retired and Democrats no longer have exclusive control of committee assignments nor the majority needed to set the agenda.
Terrill said he expects the bill to "move very quickly" to Gov. Brad Henry's desk once an agreement is reached within the Senate on its final language.
Henry has so far been "conspicuously silent" on the issue this session, "which is strange when immigration reform was such a huge issue in his campaign," Terrill said.
When asked for the governor's position on the legislation, his spokesman Paul Sund said, "It is still a work in progress and the Senate author has already indicated that he will strip out several provisions."
He added, "Until the final version is on the governor's desk, we will withhold judgment."
With the bipartisan support he said his bill has received both in the Legislature and among the public, Terrill said the governor "vetoes at his own peril."
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