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Turmoil in Tulsa: The illegal immigration wreck

Tulsa, Okla.,  is on the leading edge of local and state efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, and tensions are running high between longtime residents and mostly Hispanic newcomers,'s Gut Check America team reports.
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“Our sovereignty is under direct attack,” warns a commanding voice emanating from a pool of light in the corner of an otherwise dark airplane hangar. Dan Howard, an airplane salesman by day, is in the middle of his weekly two-hour radio show titled Outraged Patriots, a nighttime broadcast devoted entirely to the topic of illegal immigration.

Howard, who charges that the U.S. government is failing in its duty to protect the country from a “silent invasion” by illegal immigrants, taps into a deep vein of anger and unease in this conservative south central city, where many longtime residents feel besieged by a recent wave of mostly Hispanic newcomers.

That rising tide of resentment is palpable in the city’s Latino community.

At Plaza Santa Cecilia, a mall filled with Latino shops in East Tulsa, business is down as much as 40 percent, vendors say.

“It’s very quiet,” said Edith, a 17-year-old shopkeeper who didn’t want to give her last name. “Everyone is staying home because of this immigration stuff.”

The tensions of Tulsa mirror those in many other U.S. cities that have experienced sharp increases in Hispanic immigration in recent years. But other factors are at work here as well.

City on the leading edge
Tulsa is on the leading edge of local and state efforts to crack down on illegal immigration following passage by the Oklahoma Legislature of what is arguably the toughest anti-illegal immigration measure in the nation. The Tulsa City Council also embraced the get-tough approach by adopting a resolution calling on police officers to check the immigration status of  “all suspected illegal aliens.”

Those actions have sparked a fierce political battle, spread fear among Hispanics — both legal residents and those in the country illegally — and triggered an angry public face-off between demonstrators on either side of the great divide.

Among the longtime residents shaken by the changes engulfing his city is Gary Rutledge, an reader who said the demographic shift took his family and friends by surprise.

“It’s happened so quickly and our neighborhoods have changed so rapidly,” said Rutledge, a political science professor at nearby Rogers State University.

In East Tulsa, just across the main thoroughfare from his comfortable brick home, the broad avenues are now peppered with signs in Spanish and malls catering to Latino shoppers — offering everything from soccer wear and piñatas to check cashing services and Latin pop music.

“That whole part of the city has become a miniature Juarez or Tijuana or whatever you want to call it,” said Rutledge.

Like many longtime residents, Rutledge is quick to say that he is not opposed to immigration by legal means. But he says he objects to being unwillingly taken over by another culture as the result of unchecked illegal immigration.

“I’m very concerned that this last wave (of immigrants) has no interest in becoming Americanized,” he said.

Fallout from federal inaction
It was Rutledge’s story of a car crash involving an apparent illegal immigrant that led to Tulsa. But when we arrived we encountered a bigger pileup: the chaotic fallout of a federal framework that neither prevents illegal immigrants from entering the U.S. to work nor provides a way for them to gain legal status.

That Catch -22 has forced local jurisdictions like Tulsa to seek their own solutions to the explosive and complex issue.

“Increasingly, because there’s no consistent federal law, states and cities are cobbling together immigration laws on their own,” says Sheryl Lovelady, assistant to Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor. In Tulsa, Lovelady said, such laws “have caused a lot of confusion, inconsistency and fear, mainly in the Hispanic community.”

Tulsa, a city built on oil some 500 miles from the Mexican border, has a population of just over 380,000, including about 40,000 Latino or Hispanic residents, according to 2005 Census estimates. The pace of Hispanic immigration has been quickening, and local newspapers and politicians believe the number is now closer to 50,000.

John Brecher

For Rutledge, a car accident personalized the issue. He and his wife were waiting in their pickup at a traffic light one evening when they were hit from behind by a vehicle traveling about 30 miles an hour. They were not badly hurt, only stunned.

More shocking, though, was what they heard from the police officer who responded to the accident: The other driver, a young Hispanic man, did not speak English, did not have a driver’s license or insurance. The officer suspected the man was an illegal immigrant, Rutledge said, but he did not check his immigration status because such inquiries weren’t allowed in misdemeanor cases.

Before taking the other driver to jail, Rutledge said, the officer told him he should just go home and forget about it.

‘There's not much to be done’
“He said, ‘We do a lot of this kind of thing and we can tell you that there's not much to be done about it,’” Rutledge recalled.

It’s not clear what happened to the suspect after that. Tulsa police were not able to locate an accident report on the incident.

But officers said that the maximum penalty the man could have faced for driving without a license, a misdemeanor, would be 30 days in jail. Driving without insurance is only a ticketable offense.

Rutledge said he was floored by the experience. Not only would his own insurance company have to absorb the cost for repairing his truck, but the other driver was soon going to be back on the streets.

“It was … a feeling of helplessness,” he said. “There's no recourse, there's nothing to do.”

Rutledge began comparing notes with friends and family and found that many had a similar story with a similar outcome. That got him thinking about the bigger picture.

“I think that when someone comes in this country illegally, it starts a tradition or culture,” he said. “You come in illegally; everything you do from that point on is illegal. And so it's almost impossible to get a driver’s license or insurance so you just start breaking one law after another. I think it’s seductive. I think after a while ... you don't pay too much attention to rule of law that this country was established on.”

Making way for newcomers
While Rutledge’s eye-opening experience occurred behind the wheel, the immigration surge has had an even more striking impact on the Tulsa school system. With many of the immigrant workers in their child-bearing years, the population of Hispanic kids in the school is growing 3 percent a year and will constitute 25 percent of the student body by 2020, the district projects.

The city started its first programs to teach non-English speakers just five years ago, and now has 6,000 students in remedial English language classes, said Nilda Reyes, director of equity and diversity for Tulsa schools.

The sole mission of Newcomer International School, which opened in 2004, is to help its students — about 250 at any given time — become proficient in English so they can make a transition to mainstream classes. The school district also is making plans to expand remedial English teaching in higher grades, and is offering Spanish courses to teachers and looking to hire additional bilingual staff.

As in other communities, Tulsa’s medical system has taken a hit, too. Hospitals have scrambled to find enough interpreters to handle the crush of non-English speakers descending on emergency rooms, bringing in children and housekeepers in some cases, said Tulsa World immigration reporter Leigh Bell.

One program run by Saint Francis Health System offers prenatal care to women without medical insurance or access to Medicaid — about 500 at any given time — the vast majority of them illegal immigrants from Mexico. Catholic Charities provides interpreters for the program. The early care helps avert later medical problems that put even more pressure on emergency rooms and other medical facilities.

While these pressures are not unique to Tulsa, the response to them is.

Tough new rules target illegals
Local and state governments here have crafted rules to curb illegal immigration that are arguably the toughest in the nation.

In May, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henrysigned into law HB 1804, also known as the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007. The law, which is scheduled to take effect on Nov. 1, makes it a felony to “knowingly transport, move … conceal, shelter or harbor” an illegal immigrant.

Hispanic workers hoist a bucket at a construction site near Tulsa, Oklahoma, where recent state and local immigration rules are emerging in the absence of federal legislation.
Hispanic workers hoist a bucket at a construction site near Tulsa, Oklahoma, where recent state and local immigration rules are emerging in the absence of federal legislation.John Brecher

The law, which proclaims that “the State of Oklahoma finds that illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state,” requires companies that do contract work for the state to conduct stringent background checks to avoid hiring illegal immigrants. Other companies would open themselves to discrimination suits if they hired illegal workers over legal residents.

It also includes tough language requiring government agencies to ensure they are not providing services such as food stamps to those illegally in the country, though those services are already theoretically denied under federal law.

It is unclear how 1804 will be enforced — whether, for instance, nonprofit groups or individuals assisting illegal aliens could be sanctioned for “sheltering or harboring” them.

In the end, the bill might not pack much punch, according to David Blatt, policy director for Tulsa's Community Action Project, who said many of the provisions restate existing federal statutes or may be pre-empted by federal law.

"I liken it to a fiercely growling dog — one that is sending out a purposeful message that illegal immigrants are not welcome in Oklahoma," said Blatt. "... I think the bill will have minimal bite, but that is not to minimize the impact loud growling has on people."

Meantime, activists in the Hispanic community say they plan to mount a legal challenge to 1804 and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma also is studying the bill to see if it passes constitutional muster.

Whose job is it?
In Tulsa, the battle has focused on the degree to which local law enforcement should be involved in checking immigration status, normally the province of federal immigration agents.

With the strong backing of conservative U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, a Republican who represents the congressional district that includes Tulsa, the Sheriff’s Department in surrounding Tulsa County is seeking training that would essentially deputize its officers to enforce immigration law. Under section 287 (g) of federal immigration law, the Department of Homeland Security can enter into compacts with state and local law enforcement agencies to create a “force multiplier” for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service, especially where federal resources are thin in the interior of the country.

Sullivan, among the Republicans strongly opposed to President Bush’s immigration reform bill as too lenient, also was behind the city’s move to crack down on illegal immigrants.

At his urging, Tulsa’s City Council passed a resolution in May that requires police officers to determine immigration status of “all suspected illegal aliens'' encountered in the course of their regular duties — a significant hardening of the current policy under which only those arrested on felony charges are checked.

The police chief is opposed to the measure, as is Tulsa’s Democratic Mayor Kathy Taylor, who is engaged in a bitter political battle with Sullivan.

Sullivan charges that Tulsa has become a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants under Taylor’s watch because they are usually not reported to the federal immigration officials when they commit minor crimes.

He also argues that by getting police involved in reporting immigration violations, the city will be able to demonstrate the need for an ICE office in Tulsa.

Bill's aim: Create fear in criminals, not roofers
“I want to create fear in rapists, drunk drivers, drug dealers and people who conceal weapons,” Sullivan told “It doesn’t mean getting the framer down from a roof where he’s working and arresting him."

Taylor argues that the congressman’s approach will cause panic among Hispanics and open the door for racial profiling. She also maintains that public safety will suffer if the people in the community don’t report crimes because they are fearful of immigration consequences.

Among those who share her concern is Mark Wollmershauser, a Tulsa police officer who has been on the beat for 30 years.

He said he could easily envision a scenario in which the teen daughter of an illegal immigrant is raped, but the family is afraid to report it, leaving the perpetrator on the street.

“They will not call us,” said Wollmershauser. “It will drive a stake through the community in terms of crime prevention.”

Taylor has refused to sign the council’s resolution and instead issued a “policy clarification” stating that police need only ask about immigration status for felony cases or misdemeanors that result in a trip to jail.

Emergency mode
Though it remains to be seen how these laws will be enforced if they survive expected court challenges, they already have stirred visible anxiety in Tulsa’s Hispanic community.

If the laws are enforced, “It will take us back to front-counterism, vigilantism and just overloading our (legal) system,” predicted Sebastian Lantos, a legal immigrant from Argentina who is spokesman for the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations.

Marcela Frescott, program coordinator of Hispanic services at Catholic Charities in Tulsa, said families with both legal and illegal immigrants are worried about getting split up, referring to parents who are in the U.S. illegally but have children who were born here and therefore are legal citizens.

“We had one person who … has four children born here in the U.S., and now they’re afraid to register the kids in school come August because they’re afraid that at that time they might (be) arrested” and deported, she said.

Howard, the radio show host who also founded an anti-illegal immigration group called Outraged Patriots, is not swayed by such pleas.

“These parents… have ultimate responsibility for their kids,” he said. “I have empathy for them … but I cannot give a waiver on the U.S. Constitution to make way for people who cause their own problem” by coming illegally.

He advocates an immediate moratorium on immigration, a clamp down on the border and tough rules that hold employers responsible for checking immigration status.

March for Fair Immigration Reform
People waving U.S. flags and holding signs walk east on 11th Street toward East Central High School during the immigration rally. SHERRY BROWN/Tulsa World Saturday, May 5, 2007Sherry Brown / 0091492A

And he wants Washington to send a message to others contemplating sneaking across the border: “I want to see the administration send … a huge corps to deport tens if not hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens.”

If something is not done, he said darkly, “A lot of people believe there is civil war on the horizon.”

For the moment, Howard is celebrating the defeat of the federal immigration reform bill, which he opposed for offering a legal path to millions of people who entered the U.S. illegally. But he views its defeat in the Senate as merely a temporary success.

“You have got to stay vocal,” Howard told his listeners on a recent Monday night broadcast before going to a commercial break. “This issue is not over.”

Damage control
Hispanic leaders in Tulsa agree. They called an emergency meeting in June to work on ways of countering what they see as rising anti-immigrant sentiment and measures that they see as institutionalizing racism.

Among them is an information campaign to inform Hispanics of their rights if they are pulled over. Through a more ambitious effort called “Alto 1804” (“Stop 1804”), they are pooling legal and political capital to challenge the state law.

With emotions running so high, some residents and officials agree with Howard that violence is a real possibility.

Already, when some 1,500 mostly Hispanic demonstrators marched in East Tulsa on May 5 to protest HB 1804, they encountered an unexpected counterdemonstration, including members of Outraged Patriots and the Tulsa Minuteman Project, one of four organizations in Oklahoma listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “nativist extremist" organizations that target immigrants with their anger, not just immigration policy.

Police were watching the march and counterdemonstration and managed to keep the two sides apart. Only epithets and few eggs were hurled.

“We were able to get it worked out,” said Tulsa Police Capt. Steve Odom, who witnessed the confrontation. “But I do worry about the rhetoric because there’s a lot of information on both sides that’s misunderstood.”

Rutledge, the college professor, is among those who fear that the situation will get worse if nothing is done.

“It’s very serious,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have a revolution. I don’t think America’s going to pick up guns and start marching, but it could be something similar to the breakdown of law and order we had during desegregation and … back in MLK era.”