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9 Years Later, Oklahoma Immigration Law Has Little Lasting Impact

Southwest 29th Street in Oklahoma City.
Jacob McCleland
Southwest 29th Street in Oklahoma City.

Customers can smell the bread before they enter Ramiro Padilla’s Mexican bakery and restaurant along Southwest 29th Street in largely-Hispanic south Oklahoma City.

In 2007, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law to crack down on undocumented residents. At the time, Padilla says the Hispanic community panicked. In his neighborhood, the streets were empty.

I think the best description at that time is like when right after a tornado passes. I think that was the feeling on the streets,” Padilla said. “Even on Saturdays and Sundays, and that's when our people shop. And they were empty.”

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to deport approximately 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records. That worries Hispanic communities across the country, but the concern isn’t new in Oklahoma. House Bill 1804 was among the strictest immigration laws in the nation, and members of Padilla’s community feared deportation or being singled out by police.

“We know a lot of our customers moved to another state,” Padilla said.

Two parts of the law were eventually struck down, including a provision that required individuals to check the immigration status of independent contractors. Courts also invalidated provision that would’ve forbidden employers from laying off egal workers if undocumented workers were still on the payroll.

Other parts are still in place. Contractors who work for state entities must be enrolled in E-Verify, the online system to check an employee’s eligibility. It’s also a felony to harbor, transport or keep an undocumented person in Oklahoma.

“That really was the part that was very troubling for many people,” said Amir Farzaneh, an immigration lawyer and adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University.

When the law passed, he received lots of calls from landlords. They were worried they could be charged with a felony if tenants were in the country illegally.

“That's really the problem that we're facing,” Farzaneh said. “When a law comes out that puts the policing power in the hands of individuals. Let's say a landlord then, those tenants are going to suffer because the landlord wants to now come and check whether or not they're legal or not.”

Farzaneh says, as far as he knows, no landlord in Oklahoma City has ever been charged for violating this section of HB 1804. In fact, he isn’t aware of it ever being used.

“You can have a law that is really unreasonable and then you're going to have a hard time enforcing it. That's just what it is,” Farzaneh said.

Oklahoma City police chief Bill Citty can’t remember anybody within his jurisdiction who has been arrested for transporting, harboring or keeping an undocumented immigrant.

“If [officers] feel like they have somebody or they have evidence that somebody is here undocumented, then we give them the authority to contact [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] and see if ICE wants to come out and actually work that case,” Citty said.

Oklahoma City police do not have authorization to enforce federal immigration laws. Citty’s officers only ask about immigration status under certain circumstances. For example, officers never ask victims whether or not they’re here legally.

“You have a victim in a domestic violence or you have a victim in a rape or you know anything like that, you don't want somebody to be afraid to call because they're afraid we're going to ask them that question,” Citty said.

But HB 1804 created that exact scenario. In 2007, people in south Oklahoma City didn’t call the police for help. They didn’t report crimes.

“We had an uptick in robberies and things like that. A Hispanic community that were being taken advantage of, the fact that Hispanics were afraid,” Citty said.

Ramiro Padilla was among those who didn’t call the cops. Thieves broke into his bakery three times; he never reported it. He says the law hurt his young business.

“I remember families moving out,” Padilla said. “And after that, settled down. A lot of families were coming back.”

And, eventually, business improved. Today, few people talk about House Bill 1804 nearly a decade after it became law. Oklahoma City police have tried to become more engaged in the community, with more Spanish-speaking officers. Padilla says residents have noticed, and it’s changed the atmosphere for the better.

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