Oklahoma House Panel OKs Tough Immigration Bill

Legislation billed as the nation's toughest on illegal immigrants was approved by a state House committee Wednesday, as supporters seek to halt public benefits for foreigners without documents.

The House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee voted 14-3 to send the bill to the floor of the Republican-controlled House, where its author, Rep. Randy Terrill, predicted it would pass.

"It indicates it has strong and bipartisan support," Terrill said of the committee vote.

The Oklahoma House in the past has supported illegal-immigration restrictions, but the Senate had been more reluctant when it was under Democratic leadership. However, the Senate is now evenly divided along party lines, although several immigration measures have died there this year. Gov. Brad Henry generally signs bills that have bipartisan support.

The measure would limit state driver's licenses and identity cards to citizens and legal immigrants. It would require state and local agencies to verify the citizenship and immigration status of applicants for state or local benefits. It also would require public employers to confirm the status of new workers with an electronic employment verification system.

The bill would also repeal a 2003 Oklahoma law that made illegal immigrants eligible for state-supported scholarships and allowed them to pay in-state tuition to attend public colleges and universities.

Terrill said illegal immigrants cost state taxpayers $200 million a year in public benefits and services.

The measure was endorsed by the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which described it as the nation's most meaningful immigration package.

"Mass illegal immigration is having a negative effect on Americans, their communities and their resources," said Joyce Mucci of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Religious and immigrant-support groups oppose the bill, saying it would suppress economic development and could lead to vigilantism.

"I believe that this law is harsh," said Mauro Yanez of Oklahoma City and a native of Venezuela. Yanez asked lawmakers to promote education for illegal immigrants instead.

"Education is the only tool that we have to grow in our community," he said.