But when it was signed into law five years ago, HB 1804 sparked “sheer panic in the community,” said Pat Fennell, former president and CEO of the Latino Community Development Agency (LCDA). Many immigrants fled the state immediately. Those who stayed lived in fear.
In the time since, the measure has lost some of its teeth. Although many elements of the original bill remain on the books, Latino immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have returned to the state, in part because the controversy cooled, Fennell said.
“In Oklahoma City, we don’t have an aggressive city government or an aggressive sheriff on immigration like they do in other cities,” she said.
State Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, is one of today’s loudest voices for anti-illegal immigration legislation. Rep. Randy Terrill, the outspoken author of 1804 who left the Legislature earlier this year, declined an interview for this story and directed all immigration-related requests to Shortey.
“Some of these things are very hard to pinpoint, but by getting rid of [illegal] immigrants, we saved the state some money,” Shortey said.
‘Live in the shadows’
Although he termed 1804 a success, particularly in preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving state benefits, Shortey added that Oklahoma could and should be less welcoming. Stricter laws in other states, like Arizona’s 2010 law that in June was partially dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court, could reverse the post-1804 “exodus.”
A federal judge in 2008 struck down a section of HB 1804 requiring private employers to check the immigration status of all new hires. Three years later, the state Supreme Court threw out another part of the bill that denied instate tuition to undocumented college students.
Other parts of the bill seem to be un-enforced. Attorney Richard Klinge, associate director of advocacy and outreach for Catholic Charities, said he hasn’t heard of anyone being charged with a felony for harboring or transporting an undocumented immigrant.
But if the bill was meant to create a climate of fear, it has been successful.
“The sad thing is it did, and continues to, put fear into people who have to continue to live in the shadows,” he said.
Oklahoma’s Hispanic population grew by more than 85 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the general population grew by 9 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Oklahoma City Public Schools has seen a steady increase in Hispanic students, the largest ethnic group served by the district. During the 2010-2011 school year, 45 percent of students were Hispanic, more than double the number of white students.
The large number of young Latinos is notable because a driving force behind the population growth is not illegal immigration, but a high birthrate. Each new generation increases the number of legal citizens.
“There is now a massive baby boom that’s going to overshadow that other baby boom,” said Ruben Aragon, the new president and CEO of LCDA.
The legacy of HB 1804 is unsettled in the Legislature. Immigration-related legislation is brought back to the floor with each new session. Although most bills seek ways to be tougher on immigration, some tilt in the opposite direction. But all are driven by fundamental arguments over the economy.
Sen. Harry Coates of Seminole, the only Republican who voted against HB 1804, authored several bills aiming to create a state guest-worker program. Oklahoma’s economy hasn’t done as well as it could have because 1804 scared away irreplaceable workers, he said.
“I’m not talking about amnesty,” said Coates. “I’m talking about a work permit.”
Construction and agriculture in the state have been hurt as undocumented workers cross the border into Texas where companies can hire them and compete for contracts in Oklahoma, he said.
Shortey disputes that notion. “Sen. Coates’s idea was basically to pander to illegal immigrants,” Shortey said.
A guest-worker program would be unfair because undocumented workers accept artificially lowered wages that skilled American workers cannot live on, according to Shortey.
Coates said he feels ostracized by his own party. But he was encouraged when delegates at the Republican National Convention in August approved a platform that includes a willingness to consider the merits of a guest worker program.
“Maybe the Republicans are waking up,” he said, “but then again maybe this was just election-year pandering.”
During the last legislative session, Shortey introduced a bill enabling state law enforcement officers to seize property involved with illegal immigration (including vehicles used to transport undocumented workers). The bill never made it to the House floor, but Shortey said he will keep trying to get it heard, calling the departing House Speaker Kris Steele “unapologetically pro-illegal immigration.”
“I think in the next couple years you’ll see a lot more bills from people having to deal with problems in their own districts,” he said.
A thriving community
Meanwhile in south Oklahoma City, which comprises a large portion of Shortey’s district, Latino-owned businesses have become fixtures in many neighborhoods.
Immigrants and legal residents are increasingly choosing to write their own paychecks, Fennell said. In particular she has noticed an increase in Latina women becoming entrepreneurs. Any new business benefits the economy, and Hispanics are now more likely to open a business than any other group, Aragon said.
“The Hispanic community has become such an important bedrock in our economy because of the demographic shift in our country,” Klinge said.
Jorge Hernandez opened Tango Public Relations in Capitol Hill seven years ago. His business focuses on creating bridges between corporations and the Latino community. In general, Hispanics are young and interested in putting down roots, which makes them a valuable new customer base, Hernandez said.
“I’ve seen many, many corporate companies show interest in and want to learn more about the Hispanic commu nity in Oklahoma City,” he said As executive director of Capitol Hill Main Street, a nonprofit organization that tries to attract new tenants to the neighborhood, Hernandez has also seen more small businesses spring up. He estimates about half of the Capitol Hill buildings are now Latino-owned, an indication of the community’s key role in revitalizing the district.
When HB 1804 took effect, there wasn’t as much of an economic slump as a general malaise in south Oklahoma City. Some people left, which of course hit businesses.
But most stayed, he said. “It affected the overall, day-to-day lifestyle for the Hispanic community,” he said. “Unfortunately, the unknown created a lot of fear in people.”
Five years later the Hispanic community is growing and so is the economy. In Oklahoma City, at least, the scars from 1804 have been covered by a big community that isn’t going to leave, he said.
Shortey agreed that if all Oklahoma City’s undocumented immigrants were to leave, windows in his district would be shuttered, but said that’s a necessary drawback to enforcing federal law. Any building housing a business owned by an undocumented worker is an “illgotten gain.”
“There would be a lot of empty buildings, a lot of empty land, but there would be someone else who would come along and develop it,” he said.
Advocates for the Latino community hope respect for cultural diversity hasn’t been lost in the fracas. Becoming immersed in another culture through his legal advocacy has been an enriching experience, Klinge said.
And long-standing Oklahoma values, Aragon said, are the same as Hispanic values.
“A strong faith, strong family values and a strong work ethic — those are Hispanic values,” he said.