By Dallas Tupper and Derek Strong
Special to the Moore American
Undocumented immigration became a lightning rod of debate in many of last year’s legislative elections, and some Cleveland County legislators are now trying to prove that it wasn’t all talk.
Members of Cleveland County’s legislative delegation expressed frustration with the federal government this week for what they perceive as an inability to keep illegal immigrants from entering America, or to deal effectively with those who are already here.
“The federal government has failed in its mission to curtail illegal immigration,” said state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (R-Moore). “When that occurs, the state has to assume the responsibility.”
Although the regulation of immigration is primarily a federal responsibility, efforts to enact comprehensive reform have stalled in Congress. In the absence of federal action, many states are attempting to impose their own changes.
Last year, more than 550 immigration bills were filed in state legislatures across the country, and more than 75 became law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Oklahoma appears to have a relatively small population of undocumented immigrants — an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 out of a nationwide total of 11 million. But that is not stopping state lawmakers from responding to public clamor for reform, particularly in the absence of broad federal legislation.
So far this session, at least 11 measures addressing immigration have been introduced in the Oklahoma Senate, and eight in the House.
“The federal government needs to do more,” said state Sen. Jonathan Nichols (R-Norman). “The federal government certainly has the responsibility to do all they can to reduce and work toward eliminating illegal immigration.”
Nichols said Washington needs to step up the resources it devotes to enforcement of undocumented immigration. When the federal government falls behind, he said, the state owes it to its citizens to pick up the slack.
Picking up the slack is what state Rep. Randy Terrill (R-Moore) has in mind with a sweeping immigration reform bill (HB 1804) he recently introduced.
Terrill is already known for his hard-line posture on undocumented immigration, and his new bill only reinforces that reputation. Terrill has declared his intent to enact “the toughest immigration reform bill in the nation.”
His bill would, among other things, deny tuition breaks, food stamps, child care benefits and other state assistance to undocumented immigrants. The bill also would attempt to deter identity theft and voter fraud, and make it a state crime for illegal immigrants to reside in Oklahoma.
Terrill isn’t just going after undocumented immigrants. He also has his sights set on those who hire them: His bill would impose criminal and civil penalties on businesses that knowingly employ undocumented workers.
Wesselhoft said he supports the targeting of employers.
“If they knowingly hire illegal immigrants then they knowingly break the law,” Wesselhoft said
Sen. Jim Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) said it is important to distinguish between employers who are aware of their workers’ legal status and those who are not. He noted that some undocumented immigrants obtain false Social Security numbers, and their employers may not realize the documents are bogus.
For example, federal authorities recently conducted a massive sweep of meatpacking plants in six states. The raids involved 1,000 Homeland Security Department agents and yielded 1,282 arrests of undocumented workers, of whom 246 now face state or federal identity theft charges. No employers were arrested.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has estimated that it spends more than $7 million a year to keep undocumented immigrants under lock and key.
Terrill said many of those offenders would not have been in this country if the federal government were keeping the borders secure.
“Oklahoma needs to raise the bar and say, no more,” Reynolds said. “As long as they are coming in at will, and as long as the federal government is not meeting their responsibility, the problem won’t get any better.”
Nichols pointed to crime as one of the biggest problems associated with undocumented immigrants.
“These are persons who had no problem breaking the law to get here,” Nichols said. “So what faith can we have that they are providing any respect for the laws we do have? I have a concern whenever a person from another country breaks our laws to get here, puts our own citizens at risk and increases the costs across the board in many areas for our Oklahoma citizens.”
Last year, a state Senate task force estimated that undocumented immigrants cost the state about $10 million a year in medical care. Most of this expense involved the 2,600 babies born to undocumented immigrant mothers.
Mary Stalnaker, director of family support services for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, noted that the states are required by federal law to provide emergency care to undocumented immigrants, and that the cost is borne by the Medicaid program.
Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson (R-Oklahoma City) is another area lawmaker who is voicing her opinion on the matter of undocumented immigrants. And in her case, she is insisting that her voice be heard in English.
Wilcoxson has introduced a bill (SB 38) that would make English the official state language.
“It’s a statement,” Wilcoxson said. “It won’t prevent agencies from providing information in Spanish. It just means that they wouldn’t be required to.”
The measure is aimed at recent waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants whose presence in America has created a demand for dual-language government services. But it has aroused the ire of some Native American leaders, who say it is an affront to their multilingual heritage.
DallasTupper and Derek Strong are senior journalism students at the University of Oklahoma.
By Dallas Tupper and Derek Strong