A coalition of Hispanic clerics and church leaders filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday to overturn House bill 1804, a tough Oklahoma immigration law set to go into effect Nov. 1.
Passed by the state legislature in the spring, the law blocks undocumented immigrants from obtaining jobs and places strenuous requirements for receiving public benefits such as resident tuition for post-secondary education. It also mandates that law enforcement check a suspect's legal status on felony and DUI cases and requires court officials to consider a person's immigration status in setting bail.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Oklahoma in Tulsa by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, names Gov. Brad Henry and Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson as defendants.
The coalition alleges that the Oklahoma law is unconstitutional because the federal government is responsible for enforcing immigration laws, not states. The group will seek a temporary injunction in Oklahoma later this week and a similar lawsuit will be filed in Georgia in the weeks ahead.
Hispanics throughout Oklahoma have been in a panic since the law passed, most notably in Tulsa, where an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanics have left the region. Local church leaders in Tulsa claim they have lost more than 37 percent of their members.
"The framers of this bill aim to export undocumented people to other places," says Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the national coalition.
"That means with intimidation and racial profiling it is similar to ethnic cleansing," he said, adding that the law is "destroying families, separating parents from children, and destroying businesses."
Rivera said 80 percent of the contractors who do business in Tulsa are Hispanic, and many of the contractors have lost upwards of 70 percent of their workforce.
"Instead of building 10 houses they are building three houses in the same time," Rivera notes.
Home builders have been monitoring the situation over the past several weeks, and the Tulsa HBA has been working closely with public officials and law enforcement to diffuse the situation.
"While there have been some people not showing up for work, the real fear has been about where things were going versus where they really were," said Paul Kane, executive vice president of the Tulsa HBA.
The Tulsa HBA has been running ads in Spanish on local radio stations trying to reach out to the Hispanic community.
"The worst part is that people are scared in the community, and both legal and illegal workers are leaving," said Glenn Shaw of Shaw Homes, and president of the Tulsa HBA.
"We've talked to law enforcement officials here, and they don't have any interest in arresting people if they are just here working and are not criminals," Shaw said. "Law enforcement really doesn't have the money or manpower to arrest these people," he concluded.
Shaw's point was underscored by police chiefs around the state this past weekend, many of whom expressed concerns on how municipalities will pay to enforce the new law.
On another front, the police chief from Oklahoma City, William Citty, was concerned that the public didn't fully understand the law. Citty said he was incorrectly characterized in the press the past few days as saying that he would not enforce the law.
"There's always a possibility that the law won't go into effect, but if it does then I have the responsibility to enforce it," Citty said, who explained that HB 1804 expands state police powers in at least two ways:
First, on felonies and DUIs, the new law mandates that Oklahoma police officers must determine if the person is here legally and notify federal authorities. While this was always an option, the new law makes notifying the feds a mandate. Second, HB 1804 makes it a state felony to harbor or transport an illegal alien.
"What this means is that I can arrest the driver, but if there are 20 immigrants in a truck I can only hold them, the law does not give me the jurisdiction to make the arrest," Citty explained, saying that only federal authorities can arrest the immigrants.
State Rep. Randy Terrill, chief sponsor of the Oklahoma immigration law, has been on record saying that he believes the law will survive any legal challenges. Efforts to reach Terrill today were unsuccessful.