OKLAHOMA CITY -- A Senate committee on Tuesday easily approved a pair of Republican-sponsored bills designed to crack down on illegal immigration, despite concerns from Democrats that the bills were an example of "mean-spirited" political pandering.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved both measures on party-line votes. One would deny Oklahoma citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants, while the other, dubbed "Arizona-plus" by its author, would allow police to not only question people about their immigration status, but also to confiscate property — including homes and vehicles — belonging to those in the country illegally.
Both measures now advance to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Republican Sen. Ralph Shortey, who wrote the immigration bills and represents a heavily Hispanic district in south Oklahoma City, said he disagrees with the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that babies born in this country automatically become American citizens. He said his bill on asset forfeiture would give law enforcement an incentive to capture and jail illegal immigrants.
"Legal Hispanics in my district are very supportive of these laws," Shortey said. "Illegal Hispanics are not, and to be quite honest, I really don't care what they think."
Shortey's bill includes language similar to an Arizona law that allows police conducting traffic stops or questioning people about other possible legal violations to ask them about their immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion that they're in the country illegally.
Arizona's law ignited protests over whether it would lead to racial profiling, and prompted lawsuits by the Justice Department, civil rights groups and other opponents seeking to have it thrown out. A federal judge has ordered some of the Arizona law placed on hold.
The Oklahoma bill would go a step further by allowing police to confiscate vehicles or property used to transport or house illegal immigrants, Shortey said. The money from the sale of such property would help pay to incarcerate the illegal immigrants in county jails and for their prosecution.
"We're one-upping the Arizona legislation. We're making it better," Shortey said. "If you give (law enforcement) a fiscal reason why they should do it, then they're going to enforce these laws."
Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre, D-Tulsa, described both measures as a "mean-spirited" political ploy to distract voters from more important issues, such as the state budget and Oklahoma's economy. She voiced concern that such a law encourages discrimination against both illegal immigrants and Hispanic Americans.
"I gave the example of Nazi Germany," Eason-McIntyre said after the meeting. "You start defining people, saying who's worthy and who's not worthy, and it leads to a lot of negative things directed at people who are very vulnerable.
"It becomes easier to mistreat people when they become, in your mind, sub-humans."
Nationwide, state lawmakers introduced more than 1,400 bills and resolutions related to immigrants or immigration in 2010, including six states in which bills similar to Arizona's were introduced, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
None of the Arizona-style bills was enacted.
Targeting birthright citizenship appears to be the latest pet project of anti-illegal immigrant lawmakers across the country, said Michele Waslin, a policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center.
"It's kind of an idea that's always been around with the extreme anti-immigrant folks," Waslin said. "This year it seems to be more popular as more people try to be tough on illegal immigration."
Waslin said Oklahoma risks expensive court costs trying to defend such laws and being alienated by businesses and industry who view such measures as extreme.
"Arizona has lost millions of dollars from people who have boycotted tourism there and withdrew conferences," she said. "If police are going to be arresting people for their immigration violations, that means an increase costs to detain and prosecute these people."