Immigrants Leave Okla. After Tough Law Enacted Advocates for undocumented workers and activists for tougher immigration measures both say that since the local law took effect Nov. 1, thousands of immigrants have left Oklahoma. Builders and Hispanic leaders denounce the law, which is among the nation's toughest; supporters say it's bridging federal gaps.
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Immigrants Leave Okla. After Tough Law Enacted

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Immigrants Leave Okla. After Tough Law Enacted

Immigrants Leave Okla. After Tough Law Enacted

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A new law in Oklahoma to crack down on illegal immigrants is having a dramatic impact. The measure is known as H.B. 1804, and its first phase went into effect November 1st. It makes it a felony to employ, shelter or transport anyone who is in this country illegally. Hispanic leaders say the law is creating a climate of fear among immigrants. Backers say the law is doing what the federal government has failed to do - aggressively target illegal immigrants.

Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN: At a sprawling development called Bell Trace(ph) east of downtown Tulsa, new detached homes are sprouting from the prairie. But many of the houses remain only partially built. Bricks have piled around some, others wrapped in white Tyvek sheeting stand empty.

James Baker(ph), who's overseeing one of the few active construction sites, says the effects of Oklahoma's new immigration law are obvious here.

Mr. JAMES BAKER (Construction Staff): Used to be, every house was being worked on every day. Now, most houses are sitting every day. There's more not being worked on than there is worked on.

BEAUBIEN: Baker acknowledges the national housing slowdown, but says the idle construction projects here are due to a lack of workers. Almost all of the workers at the site are Hispanic, most from Mexico. One of Baker's subcontractors said he used to have 18 men working for him. But since the passage of H.B. 1804, eight of them have left the state. The house we're standing in is a 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom with three baths. Eventually, it'll have granite countertops, a fireplace, a three-car garage. And the list price is $260,000. Baker says as Oklahoma's new immigration low drives construction workers out, it's going to drive the price of houses like this one up.

Mr. BAKER: You know economies, it takes a certain amount of workers to keep economies growing. And we've had too many birth-control pills and not enough workers coming in. So we need more workers, and we've got more jobs than we have people. And that's just, if there was no jobs here, they wouldn't be here.

BEAUBIEN: Hispanic leaders say it's not just illegal immigrants who are fleeing Oklahoma. They say legal residents are also affected by the law. Take Leticia Sandoval(ph). She's a U.S. citizen born and raised in California. But she bursts into tears when she starts talking about Oklahoma's new immigration law.

Ms. LETICIA SANDOVAL (Resident): We're so afraid to even go to the grocery store to go shopping because we're so afraid that, you know, we're going to get stopped.

BEAUBIEN: Her husband is from Mexico. He's been working in Oklahoma for 12 years, much of that time without a work visa.

Ms. SANDOVAL: If they ask him for his papers and he doesn't have it, they will take him right there. It doesn't matter if we did something wrong or not, they'll just take him. So I mean, he's afraid to go, even go to work.

BEAUBIEN: She says if her husband gets deported, she doesn't how she'd pay their bills or support their four children. Since the measure went into effect, Sandoval worries now that she's breaking the law if she's driving her husband somewhere or even just living with him. And so why not try to get him legal status?

Ms. SANDOVAL: We have tried every (unintelligible). They keep telling us he would have to go back to Mexico. And it could take anywhere from seven to 10 years before he even get a permit to come back into the U.S. And I just couldn't do without his income, you know, not even a year. I mean, seven, 10 years is a long time.

BEAUBIEN: Over the last decade, the Hispanic population of Tulsa has grown dramatically. According to the census, the city's Hispanic population went from seven percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2006. And with the influx of undocumented immigrants, the growth was probably far greater.

Gary Rutledge has lived in Tulsa for 17 years and has witnessed that change.

Mr. GARY RUTLEDGE (Political Science Professor, Rogers State University): I've never seen a situation so volatile as the illegal immigrant population, illegal immigrant situation that we have in this region.

BEAUBIEN: Rutledge teaches political science at Rogers State University. But it's in his personal life that he's seen what he calls the escalating conflict between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations in Tulsa. And he said the problem of illegal immigration was driven home to him six months ago when he got rear-ended at a traffic light. You know, the driver was intoxicated and had no driver's license.

Mr. RUTLEDGE: We never did or the law enforcement people never did determine who actually owned the car. The tags that were in the car didn't belong in the car. And the driver didn't speak English or, at least, refused to speak English. And so, anyway, the driver was arrested, taken away. And the cop, in so many words, told me, if your car runs, why don't you just drive it down home and just forget it because you really don't have any recourse in this matter.

BEAUBIEN: Rutledge contends illegal immigration is spawning a culture of lawlessness. After breaking one law to get into this country, Rutledge argues that it's not much of a stretch for immigrants to drive without a license or ignore other laws. He said that illegal immigrants are overburdening Tulsa's schools, sapping entitlement programs, and driving down wages for low-skilled jobs. But in the last couple of months, illegal immigrants have either been leaving Tulsa or laying low. In this way, Rutledge says the new measure has already been a success. The debate over this new law has only heated up since it went into effect November 1st.

The Catholic bishop of Tulsa, Edward Slattery, recently denounced the measure in a pastoral letter, calling it immoral. Sitting in his residence on the ground of the diocese, Bishop Slattery says, for years, U.S. immigration policy essentially encouraged millions of immigrants to cross the Rio Grande, to take low-paying jobs. And he think it's a violation of their human rights to now try to force those immigrants to flee the state.

Bishop EDWARD SLATTERY (Diocese of Tulsa): Human rights come from God. They don't come from the legislature. In fact, it's reflected in our Constitution. There is an alienable right of every person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not just to citizens, but to everyone.

BEAUBIEN: Bishop Slattery insists that he's not calling for the U.S. to surrender its borders. But he says people who've been working here for years have a right to stay and earn a living. Hispanic leaders say that the culture of fear that's developed since 1804 passed in May has been deadly. They point to the case of Edgar Castarenia(ph) who was born in Tulsa to undocumented Mexican immigrants. He died two months later from a minor rupture in his intestine.

Laurie Paul, the head of the Community Health Connection Clinic where Castarenia was first admitted, says the infant's condition absolutely could have been treated if he'd gotten medical attention sooner. She says the parents were too terrified to bring their baby to the hospital.

Ms. LAURIE PAUL (Head, Community Health Connection Clinic): They told us that they were fearful, that since they had no documentation, that the law would be called and they would be deported.

BEAUBIEN: In many ways, the primary impact of the new law has been to amplify fear among illegal immigrants and drive some of them from Oklahoma. Before and after its passage, the parents of Edgar Castarenia could've taken their baby to the hospital emergency room. Schools still aren't checking the immigration status of children. And law enforcement officials say that the new law hasn't significantly changed what they do.

Even though it does make it a crime to shelter or transport an illegal immigrant, Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz says his deputies are not randomly trying to verify the immigration status of people on the street.

Mr. STANLEY GLANZ (Tulsa County Sheriff): When we're just driving down the street and stop someone, we don't ask them if - where they're from. Foreign-born or not, if they violated the law, we deal with that and handle it accordingly.

BEAUBIEN: And the sheriff, who's known to take a tough stand on illegal immigration, says he still only attempts to deport someone if they end up at his jail for some other criminal violation not related to immigration.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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