The state of Oklahoma has begun implementing a new law that is described as the toughest in the nation against illegal immigrants. Supporters of the law say it will reduce crime and curb use of taxpayer funded services by people who have no right to be in the United States. But Latino groups, joined by civil rights groups and churches say the new law is fostering discrimination. VOA's Greg Flakus has more in this report from Houston.
The new law makes it illegal to hire, transport or house an illegal immigrant and authorizes police in Oklahoma to assist federal immigration authorities in enforcing U.S. immigration law. The law also denies state services to undocumented aliens and imposes penalties on employers who hire them.
The sponsor of state legislative bill 1804, State Representative Randy Terrill, a Republican from Moore, Oklahoma, says the new law will save the state money and help fight crime and potential terrorist threats.
"Having 12 to 20 million illegal aliens and we don't have a clue as to who they are and what they are doing, it is clearly a national security threat. In addition to that, it contributes to all sorts of other problems like crime and gangs and drugs and narco-trafficking," said Terrill. "Even our Bureau of Narcotics here in Oklahoma estimates that something in excess of 40 percent of the drug trafficking through Oklahoma is directly attributable to our illegal alien problem."
But civil rights organizations, churches and Hispanic groups have challenged the new law, claiming it will lead to discrimination against Latinos, foreigners, and anyone with dark skin. A federal judge rejected a suit filed by a Hispanic clergy group, letting the law to go into effect November first, but various groups are supporting further challenges to the law.
Patricia Fennell, executive director of the Latino Community Development Agency, a private non-profit organization in Oklahoma City, says some area businesses are seeing the effect of immigrants leaving the state because of the new law.
"We are getting calls now from employers who are having openings that they cannot fill. For instance, in construction, subcontractors are saying they have lost 25 to 50 percent of our workforce and we cannot meet contract deadlines," said Fennell.
Randy Terrill dismisses the notion that Oklahoma will suffer a worker shortage if the state drives out illegal workers. He also rejects the idea that the law he sponsored targets Latinos or any other group for discriminatory treatment.
"We do not care what your skin color is or whether or not you speak with an accent or even what your last name is," said Terrill. "What we do care about is whether or not you are in this country legally or illegally. So the only people who have anything to be concerned about under House Bill 1804 are those folks who have voluntarily made the decision to violate the law by either coming here or remaining here in violation of federal immigration law."
But Patricia Fennell says the effect of the new law is evident in the way it is being applied already by police, employers and landlords.
"We are going to be monitoring the implementation of the law because we already see cases where profiling is occurring, where discriminatory actions are being taken, for instance in apartment complexes where only Latinos are being asked for proof of citizenship and that is something that should not occur," said Fennell.
Implementation of the new law in Oklahoma is also being watched closely by other states where illegal immigration has had an impact. Lawmakers in Utah say they are going to pattern new legislation there on the Oklahoma law. There have been 182 immigration-related laws passed in 43 states this year.
In some cases involving local community laws against illegal aliens, federal courts have stopped implementation based on the principle that immigration is a federal matter.
But many state and local government representatives argue that until the federal government fulfills its obligation to secure the border, they have a right to make and enforce their own laws. The legal clash over these positions could help make immigration an even bigger issue in next year's U.S. presidential election.