Gov. Brad Henry's signature is all that is needed for an immigration reform bill approved by the House to become law. The state House of Representatives voted 84-14 Tuesday to approve Senate changes to the bill and send it to the governor. The vote came after more than two hours of debate and questions. Supporters of House Bill 1804 say states have waited long enough on the federal government to control the influx of illegal immigrants coming across the U.S. border and eventually into Oklahoma. They say illegal immigrants are unfairly using taxpayer-funded benefits like in-state college tuition and social services. Rep. Rex Duncan, chairman of the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said this is about rule of law, not discrimination. "We are too afraid to offend somebody,” said Duncan, R-Sand Springs. "The land of opportunity is becoming the land of entitlement through years of political correctness and cowardice.” A unified federal response is the only way to reduce illegal immigration, opponents say. The debate hinges on class and race and discriminates against all Hispanics, they say, and businesses that depend on low-wage workers will suffer. Rep. Mike Shelton said the bill was watered down from the version that initially passed the House.
Sen. Tom Adelson, who fought to keep the in-state tuition eligibility in the bill, agreed there is currently not a clear way for illegal students to apply for citizenship without the risk of deportation. He says the bill deals with that issue by allowing students to apply for citizenship up to one year after a legal pathway is created by the federal government.
College students now paying in-state tuition rates would not be penalized by this bill, regardless of their immigration status.
Several bill opponents say the main problem is the complicated process those outside the country must go through to enter America legally. Garcia-Upson said it can take a Mexican citizen as many as 12 to 15 years to go through the nationalization process since a limited number of visas are given out each year.
The legislation also empowers local law officers to enforce immigration laws. Currently, local officials cannot hold illegal immigrants unless they have been formally charged with a crime. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said his officers notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they suspect they have someone in custody who is illegally in the country, but if ICE doesn't have enough officers available, the illegal immigrants are released.
Rep. Terrill, R-Moore, said "catch-and-release” is eliminated in the bill, requiring local law enforcement to detain suspected illegal immigrants because they are a flight risk until ICE can pick them up.
"The federal government has not and is not taking care of their responsibilities,” Whetsel said. "They are not providing enough ICE agents; an issue that by default is falling to local law enforcement and I am not sure that is proper.”
Some opponents worry this provision will only lead to further overcrowding in jails. Terrill said there will be some costs, but the federal government reimburses local law enforcement for detaining and holding illegal immigrants.
"Governor Henry supports responsible and effective immigration reform, but he will withhold judgment on this particular bill until he has had an opportunity to review the final version,” said Paul Sund, Henry's spokesman.
Legislative detailsThe bill, authored by Rep. Randy Terrill, would set criminal penalties for knowingly and willingly harboring illegal immigrants. No public benefits would be allowed to people in the state illegally, except in cases of medical emergencies or emergency aid. Businesses would need to run all workers through a federal verification system or risk penalties and legal action. The legislation also would cut off in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students unless they can verify they have applied for citizenship or plan to within one year. That change could cut off most illegal students from in-state tuition. Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a spokeswoman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said once a student enters the country illegally, it is almost impossible to become a legal citizen.
What's next?Henry has not said whether he will sign the bill. The legislation seemingly is "veto-proof,” as it previously passed the House 88-9 and the Senate 41-6. It requires a two-thirds vote in each body to override. He has until Tuesday to sign or veto the bill.
Votes against HB 1804Rep. Scott BigHorse, D-Pawhuska; Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Ray McCarter, D-Marlow; Rep. Paul Roan, D-Tishomingo; Rep. David Braddock, D-Altus; Rep. Ryan Kiesel, D-Seminole; Rep. Jeanie McDaniel, D-Tulsa; Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. John Carey, D-Durant; Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Bill Nations, D-Norman; Rep. Wallace Collins, D-Norman; Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City.