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Oklahoma law blamed for Hispanic exodus

Edgar Castorena had diarrhea for 10 days and counting, and the illegal immigrant parents of the 2-month-old did not know what to do about it.
Image: Caleb McCaleb, Juan Casas
Caleb McCaleb, left, and Juan Casas, right, pose for a photo at a job site in Edmond, Okla., on Jan. 15. McCaleb, who runs a homebuilding company in Edmond, Okla., said he is losing workers because of an Oklahoma law that cracks down on illegal immigration.Anonymous / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Edgar Castorena had diarrhea for 10 days and counting, and the illegal immigrant parents of the 2-month-old did not know what to do about it.

They were afraid they would be deported under a new Oklahoma law if they took him to a major hospital. By the time they took him to a clinic, it was too late.

A ruptured intestine that might have been treatable instead killed the U.S.-born infant, making him a poster child for opponents of a bill months before it was enacted as the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007.

The law, billed by its backers as the toughest U.S. legislation against illegal immigration, took effect Nov. 1. It bars illegal immigrants from obtaining jobs or state assistance and makes it a felony to harbor or transport illegal immigrants.

"The sad part of it was the child didn't have to die if House Bill 1804 didn't ever come around," said Laurie Paul, who runs the clinic where Edgar was finally taken. "It was a total tragedy because the bill was there to create the myths and untruths and the fear."

A final portion of the law goes into effect July 1, requiring private companies to verify the employment eligibility of all new hires.

While it is difficult to characterize which U.S. state has the toughest immigration-related law, Oklahoma's goes beyond most because it includes the clause about harboring and transporting illegal immigrants, said Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures' Immigrant Policy Project.

"What I think these laws may have are unintended consequences on the general public," Morse said recently. "How does the law get implemented? Who is the target?"

The crackdown and its consequences
The crackdown has caused Hispanics to leave for neighboring states, with as many as 25,000 leaving northeastern Oklahoma alone, according to the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The law's fallout also can be seen in struggling businesses, worker shortages and widespread fear among immigrants who say they are afraid to drive to church or the market because police might pick them up.

"I feel like I'm in some kind of Nazi country where if they see your color, you'll be stopped," said Maria Sanchez, a 22-year-old student who is looking to leave Oklahoma rather than risk waiting the seven years it will take to get her papers. "I can't work, I can't study, I can't go out, there's no point of me staying here."

Civil rights leaders call the law xenophobic and redundant, and they say other states will wrongly look to Oklahoma to push their own anti-illegal immigrant legislation. Business and church leaders also have been vocal opponents.

"Oklahoma was settled by immigrants ... which means that diverse is normal in Oklahoma," said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. "It's difficult for us to understand a state which is so Christian, that to have all this animosity toward immigrants is completely outrageous."

Defending Oklahoma's act
Supporters — described by Dan Howard, the founder of an anti-illegal immigration Web site, as "good, American, God-fearing people of the heartland that bleed red, white and blue" — say the law is necessary because of Washington's bungled immigration policy. They also believe the law has helped deter crime and punishes the companies that make money on the backs of illegal labor.

The bill's Republican author, state Rep. Randy Terrill, said similar versions have been introduced or are under consideration in more than a dozen states. Last year, more than 1,500 pieces of immigration-related legislation were introduced across the country, with 244 becoming law in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"More than half the nation will soon be modeling Oklahoma's bill," said Terrill, who plans to introduce a companion piece this year that would make English the state's official language, order schools to report how many illegal children are enrolled and require people or businesses who transport, hire or rent to illegal immigrants to forfeit property.

Terrill said there is no correlation between his bill and Edgar's death, noting that the child died in July, months before the law took effect, and that the law provides an exception for emergency medical care.

"To the extent that these illegal alien parents deprived their own child needed and necessary medical care because of their ignorance of the law, then they should be in prison, frankly," Terrill said.

'It's always the same thing'
Edgar's parents are believed to have gone underground following the boy's death, returning either to Mexico or going to stay with family in Arkansas, according to interviews with people in Tulsa's Latino community.

Far from the halls of the state Capitol, fear leads illegal immigrants to develop elaborate emergency plans for their children in case the youngsters should find their parents missing.

Irene Maldonado, 24, has been designated as the one to call in case her sister-in-law gets deported. Meanwhile, she worries if her husband, Jose, will come home on weekends from the construction jobs he works throughout the state.

She has legal residency, he does not.

"I don't know if he has less fear, or he's trying to be the macho guy," she said.

Illegal immigrant Maria Saldivar, 44, searches for what little factory work she can find to support her three children. Past employers now ask for papers.

"Every time I look for a job, it's always the same thing," Saldivar said in Spanish through a translator. "There was more work for me to do before."

Leaving Oklahoma all together
Even workers with proper paperwork are leaving for jobs in neighboring states rather than split up their families.

"My guy who runs my framing crew, he had 70 workers, and as of Nov. 1, he lost 35 of them," said Caleb McCaleb, who runs a homebuilding company in Edmond. "My painter has lost 30 percent of his work force, my landscaper has lost 25 percent of his work force."

Some in Terrill's own party doubt the wisdom of his legislation.

"We've removed not only those here illegally and working, but those who are here legally," said state Sen. Harry Coates, a Republican who voted against 1804 and wants to repeal portions of the bill. "I'm not the smartest person in the world, but I understand economics."

Vicente Ruiz, a 47-year-old legal immigrant who runs his own electrical contracting business, put it more bluntly: "It's all about making money, and if everybody moves away, the whole state is going to suffer."