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Oklahoma's high court upholds state's anti-illegal immigration bill

The author of House Bill 1804 said he is pleased his measure for the most part survived a ‘multipronged attack.' The attorney who filed the lawsuit calls the Oklahoma Supreme Court's opinion a political decision.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: June 15, 2011

• Illegal immigrants cannot get an official government-issued form of identification, such as a driver's license or occupational license.

• Illegal immigrants are ineligible for most forms of state taxpayer-funded public assistance or entitlement benefits.

• State and local law enforcement officials can cooperatively enforce federal immigration law. They can't decide who gets to come into the U.S. and how long they get to stay.

• The state can require employers to check the legal status of their employees.

Terrill said the opinion cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld an Arizona law penalizing businesses for hiring illegal immigrants, which is a key provision of HB 1804 that has been tied up in federal court. That ruling says federal immigration law gives states the authority to impose sanctions on employers who hire unauthorized workers.

“This opinion when you couple it with the previous U.S. Supreme Court opinion ... seems to suggest that the state does in fact have a great deal of latitude to further crack down against illegal immigration if it chooses to do so,” Terrill said.

Other measures failed

Terrill and other legislators who tried to pass tougher anti-illegal immigration measures this past session had little success in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Instead, legislative leaders formed a special joint committee to develop a bill that included provisions to bar children of illegal immigrants from receiving tuition assistance for postsecondary education, allow state agencies to report illegal immigrants who apply for state or federal aid, require employers to verify the immigration status of potential employees, outlaw the practice of illegal immigrants seeking work as independent contractors, and making it a crime to pick up illegal immigrants for the purpose of employing them.

The final product ended up targeting human smugglers and others who take advantage of illegal immigrants; it was voted down in the House of Representatives.

The legal challenge to HB 1804 was filed in 2008 by Michael C. Thomas, of Tulsa, who worked for a local mental health association. He filed his lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court against then-Gov. Brad Henry, the state of Oklahoma and Tulsa County's board of county commissioners.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Tulsa County judge's ruling that one part of HB 1804 was unconstitutional because it didn't deal with immigration issues. That section dealt with denying resident tuition for higher education to illegal immigrants who successfully completed the General Education Development test.

Thomas argued in his challenge that the state constitution stipulates that the Legislature cannot appropriate public money to establish a bureau of immigration.

The high court said the constitutional provision written in 1907 prohibited appropriating state money to fund a state bureau of immigration with the purpose of attracting additional people to settle in Oklahoma. In this case, the state is not attempting to regulate immigration, but rather use a federal database to confirm the immigration status of a person accused of a crime, the justices said.

“HB 1804 mandates compliance with federal immigration laws and it seeks to establish cooperation with the federal government,” the opinion states. “States are permitted to enforce immigration laws.”

PDF: Full text of HB 1804