By now, Tulsa motorists who travel along Interstate 44 have seen them: "Is it OK? . . . for Oklahoma to have a law that promotes hate among people?" one billboard reads.
"My mommy is not a criminal. She is a hardworking Hispanic woman," reads another, this time with a picture of an apparently traumatized little girl, tear rolling down her cheek, clinging to a stuffed bear for comfort as she either fears the prospect or grieves the reality of her mother's deportation.
The billboards are part of the recently launched "Stop HB 1804" campaign, by the American Dream Coalition and the newly-formed United Front Task Force, to "make people aware of what the law means and how it threatens human rights," said UFTF spokeswoman Margarita Vega-Trevino.
The publicity campaign is an opening shot across the bough as the task force prepares to take its fight to the courts in the form of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new state-level immigration reform law, which is to take effect Nov. 1.
Among the new law's numerous provisions and mandates are penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens and for those who knowingly harbor or shelter them, as well as requirements that proof of citizenship be shown to receive state-funded services or state-issued identification.
Also, the bill will modify Oklahoma law to mirror federal immigration laws, thereby authorizing state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce them.
When asked how the bill "threatens human rights," Vega-Trevino pointed to a few specific scenarios she believes it will bring about, but said her main objection is to the bill's overall effect of "creating a climate of fear" within the Hispanic community.
"This law allows people who are discriminatory to act according to their own free will," she said. "We know the Tulsa Police Department is arresting people for false reasons and, once they're arrested, they're in the custody of the Sheriff's Office, and when their immigration status is checked and they're found to be illegal, they get deported."
As the law in question hasn't yet taken effect, Vega-Trevino was referencing a recently passed City Council resolution intended to bring Tulsa's law enforcement policies in line with the new law by directing police to check the status of anyone arrested whose citizenship is in question.
As she explained, stories abound within the Hispanic community of police exploiting the new policy to indulge their racism by arresting undocumented immigrants on manufactured charges for the purpose of putting them on the path to deportation.
A particular instance she cited was an episode involving two female officers who were overheard discussing, "How can we get him (an illegal immigrant they'd encountered) arrested so we can get him deported?"
Accusing the man of propositioning them for sex was the agreed-upon farce, Vega-Trevino recounted, which managed to land the man behind bars where his illegal status was confirmed before his transfer into the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency's custody.
While the task force spokeswoman could not recall the man's name nor the names of the two female officers, nor any other specific examples of illegal immigrants who had been arrested on false pretenses, she did refer UTW to someone whom she said could provide those examples: Campbell Cook, a Tulsa immigration attorney who has championed many Hispanic immigrants.
However, when questioned, Cook said, "To the best of my knowledge, I don't think you're going to find any examples of that happening."
He said he knows of four examples of legal immigrants who had been wrongfully detained after having been legitimately arrested, but said he knows of no cases in which illegal immigrants were wrongfully arrested for the purpose of deportment.
In fact, rather than providing examples of racism and discrimination, Cook lauded the TPD for its efforts in trying to put the Hispanic community at ease.
"I have the greatest sympathy for the Tulsa police--they've done an incredibly large amount of good work in reaching out to the Hispanic community," he said.
However, Cook said the county Sheriff's Office has wrongfully detained people who should have been released on bail, and he said he's preparing to file lawsuits on behalf of the four (he declined to provide names until the lawsuits are filed).
Victor Orta, president of the American Dream Coalition, said he knows of undocumented immigrants who have been arrested for what he called "minor traffic violations"--such as swerving in the road, or having an inoperative turn signal.
However, as undocumented immigrants, such motorists would not have had drivers' licenses, vehicle registrations nor car insurance, and so would have been breaking the law simply by driving.
Whether from threats real or imagined, a "climate of fear" certainly exists within the Hispanic community.
"A lot of rumors are flying around," said Cook.
"A lot of legal and illegal immigrants are packing their bags and going to Canada," he said.
According to some officials, though, the fear driving those rumors is overblown.
Regarding the hypothetical "mommy (who) is not a criminal," but a "hard working Hispanic woman" depicted on Orta's billboard, Chief Deputy Tim Albin of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office said, "She's never going to see us--we're not interested in doing that."
And by "that," he means going out and searching for illegal immigrants who, apart from being in the country illegally, aren't breaking any other laws.
In order to be at risk for deportation, Albin said, illegal immigrants will have to commit some other arrestable offense before they'll be in a position to have their status checked.
Orta himself acknowledged this.
When asked the purpose of his billboard, he said it's a part of "educating members of (his) community" about the new law.
Another part of his educational efforts is holding community meetings in which he tells undocumented immigrants that they need to make sure they don't drive illegally or commit any other crimes that might land them in the county jail where their status would be checked.
Because of the fear he said the new legislation is engendering within the Hispanic community, Orta said many illegal immigrants with children who are American citizens are afraid that sending them to school will lead to their discovery by authorities and deportation.
"Should we send our children to school or not?" they ask him.
"Yes, send them to school," Orta advises.
So, Orta was asked: If someone has to be committing a crime in the first place in order to even have their immigration status checked, in what way does his billboard "educate" people about the new law?
"It's to draw attention to the impact this is having on families," he answered.
But, it depicts a child effectively orphaned by her mother's deportation after apparently being arrested for doing nothing beyond "being a hard working Hispanic woman," trying to provide for her family. If, as Orta acknowledges, an illegal immigrant has to commit a crime in the first place (in addition to bypassing federal immigration laws to get into the country, that is) to be put in that position, isn't this billboard misleading? Doesn't it only serve to fuel the "climate of fear" for which lawmakers are blamed by the Hispanic community?
"That hasn't been the perception of anyone I've talked to," Orta answered. My intention isn't to mislead anyone."
Intended or otherwise, some people do have the perception that certain aspects of the "Stop HB 1804" campaign have been misleading.
In fact, "misleading" was the precise word used by Tulsa City Councilor Maria Barnes about the United Front Task Force listing her as an opponent of HB 1804 on their website, www.hb1804.org.
"They reject HB 1804," reads one section of the site, which lists quotations attributed to several individuals in apparent opposition to the bill.
"I am concerned about Human rights," Barnes is quoted as having said.
The councilor hadn't seen the website at the time of the interview, but when it was described to her, she responded, "If it has to do with 1804, that wasn't the discussion."
"I neither support nor oppose HB 1804, and I do not support illegal immigration," Barnes told UTW.
The quote was accurate, but the councilor didn't say it in the context of a discussion about HB 1804, but about the previously mentioned City Council resolution, which she did oppose.
Also on the group's website is a section reading, "They want HB 1804," listing other quotations attributed to several individuals in apparent support of the bill.
Included on the list are the principal authors--Moore's Republican state Rep. Randy Terrill and Tulsa's Republican Sen. James Williamson, as well as two more Tulsa city councilors, and Patrick Holland of the so-called "National Alliance," a W.Va.-based neo-Nazi group.
"Illegals should be rounded up like canines and caged," said Holland, according to the site.
Like the other quotations, though, it does not provide the context in which he was supposedly engaged in a discussion about HB 1804.
The implication behind categorizing certain state and local lawmakers with the likes of Holland is consistent with the persistent claim of the United Front Task Force, which is that support for HB 1804 is equivalent to racism.
"Our mission is to bring together individuals and organizations to take a stand for decency and justice in the treatment of all immigrants and people of color," reads the group's website.
As expected, the "racist" label is one the bill's authors have rejected with equal persistence.
"The people who resort to that kind of name-calling are those who don't want to address the issue on its merits," said Terrill.
"It's a lot easier to demonize the bill and write it off as 'racist' and 'hate-mongering' than to address what it actually does," he added.
"There is absolutely nothing in this bill that targets any particular race--it doesn't matter what a person's skin color or accent is," he said.
In fact, as Terrill sees it, his bill will actually serve to reduce instances of racism against Hispanics or people of other backgrounds, because of its mandated use of the federal government's Basic Pilot Program for certain employers to verify the citizenship status of newly hired employees.
"It ensures that all new hires are treated equally, without regard to things like ethnicity," said Terrill.
"The only people who should be worried about HB 1804 are those who are in the country illegally," he added.
And that "worry," Terrill said, should only have to do with finding employment in Oklahoma--not with being arrested and deported when a person isn't doing anything illegal.
Perception vs. Reality
As for the actual merits of the bill, some of the scenarios listed by Vega-Trevino as "human rights violations" were that, under Terrill's law, landlords would be forbidden from renting to illegal immigrants, and "some of the social services provided to the general public might not be available to help the undocumented."
Another scenario described by other opponents to the bill is that a person might be arrested for driving undocumented immigrants to church on Sunday morning.
Terrill said the bill would prevent illegal aliens from receiving non-emergency medical care, but nothing in the new law specifically addresses landlord-tenant relations.
The aspect of the bill to which people tend to object, the lawmaker said, is that it mirrors an existing federal law against "harboring or sheltering illegals," making it a felony offense.
Terrill, an attorney, said the interpretation carved out in federal case law is that the prohibition applies to "furthering the presence of illegal aliens for commercial or employment purposes," such as trafficking illegal immigrants across the border or exploiting them for cheap labor.
According to that interpretation, he said, transporting illegal immigrants to church would not be punishable, but a landlord who knowingly rents to them "probably would be."
Also, Terrill said, an American citizen who is married to an illegal immigrant might be subject to the law if he or she transports that person to work.
The United Front Task Force's main legal objection to HB 1804 is that, they contend, it violates a constitutional requirement that the federal government, and not the states, drafts and enforces laws pertaining to immigration.
Russell Abbott, the Tulsa attorney leading the upcoming legal challenge, did not return UTW's telephone calls.
Cook, though, who is not a member of the task force but agrees with its legal position, said state immigration reform laws like HB 1804 "pre-empts federal immigration laws that are already in place," and that states have no legal authority to legislate where immigration is concerned.
Naturally, Terrill disagrees.
"I am 99.9 percent confident that this will stand up to any constitutional challenges," he said.
Terrill said federal law only reserves for the federal government the power to regulate immigration: "controlling the pipeline" by deciding who can legally enter the country and who cannot, by issuing visas and green cards and such.
His law, he said, doesn't address any of that, but does exercise the state's right to verify whom the federal government has already determined is in the country legally or illegally, and to enforce federal laws already in place.
Orta, Vega-Trevino and others, though, said they also object to the bill because it only deals with enforcement, which will lead to deportation before the federal government can pass comprehensive immigration reforms that might put those deported on the path to legalization, thereby breaking up families and snuffing out their hopes to live the "American dream."
"We do want the borders closed--I don't think it's fair to the U.S. for them to come over illegally," said Vega-Trevino.
"But, we do want the people who are already here to be legalized if they pay penalties and back taxes," she added.
The responsibility for the break-up of families, though, Terrill and others place at the feet of the illegal immigrants themselves.
"If they're deported, it's because the person made a deliberate decision to break the law," he said.
"That they 'shouldn't be deported because it breaks up families' is the fundamental equivalent of saying that a convicted burglar who is an American citizen should be able to stay home from prison because he has a family. There is no 'right to break the law' for illegal aliens or for citizens," the lawmaker said.
"But coming here without permission is not a felony; committing burglary is," said Orta in response to that objection.
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