POLITICS

Tensions Emerge Among Oklahoma Republicans Over Immigration Bill

Oklahoma Republicans are engaged in a tug of war over how to deal with undocumented immigrants.

With an immigration bill inspired by Arizona's controversial measure pending in the Oklahoma Senate, some Republicans want a law that takes a hard line on illegal immigration -- an approach, they say, their constituents want and that they promised voters. But other Republicans are being quietly pressed by employers and business owner not to support a punitive bill, which they warn will be bad for Oklahoma's economy.

In political campaigns across Oklahoma last year, many Republican candidates vowed to target undocumented immigrants, and came into office with plans to give the state the toughest anti-immigration policies in the nation.

But the push for a crackdown is running headlong into another Republican priority creating a pro-business climate that would make Oklahoma more attractive to business and industry.

A sweeping immigration measure is pending in the Senate, but it has been stripped of most provisions that penalize businesses for hiring undocumented workers -- a key part of earlier proposals. A separate bill passed in the House last week includes few restrictions on businesses.

"The fix is in, and it's been in for some time," said state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, a fierce critic of illegal immigration who wrote several immigration bills that weren't granted a hearing. He said business lobbying is undercutting the will of Oklahoma voters. "The truth of the matter is that the reason they're lobbying against these bills is to preserve their access to cheap, illegal alien slave labor to the detriment of U.S. citizen workers," he said.

The conflict over immigration illustrates that the big Republican sweep in the elections last fall, which gave the party the governorship and stronger control over both legislative houses, hasn't led to a consensus on some key issues. Other conflicts are brewing over further restrictions on abortion and expanding gun rights to include openly carrying weapons and toting firearms on college campuses.

Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged his organization actively opposes onerous restrictions on businesses, but accused some lawmakers of trying to score political points by pushing a contentious issue like immigration.

"We want to emphasize that we do not support illegal immigrants or hiring illegal immigrants," Williams said. "But it's already against the law, so passing another law doesn't make it any more against the law.

"The immigration problem is a federal problem. For us to try and solve a problem we didn't create at the expense of making our businesses uncompetitive, that's just not a good idea."

House and Senate leaders have created a joint committee to examine the issue, and it appears they are shying away from new restrictions on businesses and instead are opting for tougher penalties and more power for law enforcement officers.

"Ultimately, to get a handle on the issue, I believe the committee has opted to focus, at least initially in their discussions, on the public safety aspect," said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. He described the House-passed measure as a "work in progress."

But Terrill, who is miffed he wasn't named to the panel, blasted Steele and maintains the committee was formed simply to provide political cover for legislative leaders.

"(Steele's) actions so far indicate that, in fact, most of our leadership is a wholly owned subsidiary of the State Chamber of Commerce," Terrill said. "I'd almost analogize what's happened so far to a well-choreographed ... wrestling match. The outcome is mostly predetermined. They're going through the moves to make it look like something is really happening."

Whatever proposal emerges at the end of the session, those most likely to be targeted are a fast growing group of Oklahoma residents who identify themselves as Hispanic, said David Castillo, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

More than 17 percent of the 580,000 residents of Oklahoma City, the state's largest city, now identify themselves as being of Hispanic descent while in Tulsa, the state's second largest city, 14 percent of its 392,000 residents say they are Hispanic, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Lawton and Enid also recorded significant concentrations of Hispanic residents.

Castillo, whose office is tucked in a strip mall next to the El Mariachi supermarket in a heavily Hispanic area in south Oklahoma City, said Hispanic voters have traditionally been conservative, but he predicts a shift among the younger generation.

"Over the next 10 years, I think you're going to see a shift in voter registration," Castillo said. "Many of the kids that are going to school and were born here, they see these anti-immigration bills being written and people saying, 'Hispanics, go home.'

"The shift is happening, and that's going to make an impact in Oklahoma."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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