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In-Depth: Illegal Immigration Debate Breeds Confusion (Mar 15, 2011)

Legislatures in many states, including Oklahoma, are taking a tougher stance on illegal immigration and the discourse surrounding the issue continues to intensify.

“The fact is, is they’re not wanted,” State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R-44) said. “And I’m not saying that because I believe that. I do believe that. But I’m saying that because my district says that. They are not wanted, and so I’m creating laws that are going to discourage them from coming here in the first place.”

Shortey spoke at last week’s Immigration in the Heartland Conference in Norman, where he discussed why he believes it’s necessary for states like Oklahoma to draft laws cracking down on illegal immigration. He’s leading the anti-illegal immigrant charge in the Oklahoma Senate, and authored the so-called Arizona-plus legislation that gives law enforcement more authority to question and arrest illegal immigrants, confiscating their property in some cases.

Both sides of the debate say their arguments are compelling, but heated rhetoric has led to some disputed facts about the migration of undocumented people across the U.S/Mexico border. For example, some, like Shortey, believe crossing into the U.S. is too easy, while others say it’s more difficult now than ever before.

Marcelino “Chelino” Garcia is the owner of a dozen Chelino’s Mexican restaurants spread across the Oklahoma City metro. It was 1979 when Garcia illegally crossed the U.S. border at Tecate, Mexico without incident. He was 14 years old.

“We lived in a very poor area, my family. We were a very poor family, big family, so I thought I might come to the United States,” Garcia said. “Back then that wasn’t really hard. We crossed the border and we walked from Sunday through Sunday. Seven days. So, we walked almost to Los Angeles.

For some perspective, it’s about 140 miles from Tecate to L.A. His group, along with a guide, called a Coyote, took fruit from orange groves and apple trees they passed to eat along the way.

“Then my brother flew me from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City,” Garcia said. “So I spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles working for food. And that was fine for me. I was young and strong and I was here to see the United States. I didn’t care about money.”

After returning to Mexico and again crossing into the U.S. illegally, he married an American, giving him U.S. citizenship. He waited tables and washed dishes to earn a living. 10 years later he opened his first restaurant. For Garcia, getting to the U.S. was easy, but the border situation has changed since then.

The public outcry for a more secure southern border and the initiatives that followed make it more difficult to cross. Craig St. John is the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma.

“In the middle of the 1980s we decided to crack down on the border and make it harder for illegals to come over to the United States,” St. John said. “You can see that in a bunch of different ways. There began to be increasing numbers of deaths of people who came into the United States, because they had to go farther and farther away from the standard points of entry.”

As a result, St. John says both the necessity and price of Coyotes is up dramatically.

“Once you got in illegally, it made it more costly to turn around and go back. So guys who might have ordinarily gone back decided they are going to stay or they’re going to stay longer,” St. John said. “And if they’re going to stay and stay longer, the want to have their families join them too.”

Even so, the latest statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center show the number of undocumented residents in the U.S. remaining steady at around 11 million. In Oklahoma, estimates say there are about 60,000 undocumented residents, or about 1.7 percent of the state’s 3.75 million residents.

Compare those numbers to the 2010 Census. It shows Oklahoma’s overall Hispanic population almost doubling since 2000 from about 180,000 to just over 330,000. But illegal immigration isn’t the main cause. The primary reason for the increase in self-identified Hispanics is natural.

Steve Murdock was the director of the U.S. Census Bureau during the latter part of the George W. Bush administration.

“What you find is that the largest single driver of growth is natural increase, the excess of births over deaths,” Murdock said. “There are really two populations now in the United States. One is an aging, literally dying off the end of the age chart set of Anglos – non-Hispanic whites. This population has been, in terms of fertility, below replacement for a long period of time, a couple of decades. That other, second population, is a population of young minorities that is dominated by the Hispanic population.”

Murdock says even if illegal immigration across the U.S/Mexico border stopped completely, the natural increase in the Hispanic population would continue.

Like illegal immigration’s effect on population, its economic impact is also disputed. One of the major motivations for the tough anti-illegal immigration bill making its way through the Oklahoma legislature now is the perceived cost of undocumented residents to the state. However, Murdock says the economic impact of illegal immigration is also often overstated.

“At the national level they’re a net gain, because they do pay social security. They do pay income tax when they work for large companies, and many, many – most in fact – work for large companies, where at the state level it’s about a draw. That is, they contribute in sales tax and other things about as much as they use a state’s services,” Murdock said. “It’s at the local level – because of the costs relative to education and healthcare – where we see that they generally cost more than they contribute.

Back at Chelino’s, Marcelino Garcia says now, just as before he gained citizenship, he makes sure he isn’t a drag on the local economy.

“I promised to myself that I would never, ever apply for welfare or apply for any government money,” Garcia said. “In my whole life – in my children’s – I never ask for a penny…for nothing, because I’d say ‘I’m not going to be on loan to the United States. I’m going to give the best of my life to, for myself and my family.”

Garcia says he respects the law, but never regrets breaking it to pursue a better life.

“In the human being’s eyes, breaking the law to feed your children so to have a better life might be wrong, but, upstairs – Jesus – I think he’d say ‘do whatever you can,’” Garcia said.

Momentum seems to be with illegal immigration hawks like Senator Ralph Shortey in Oklahoma. The Republican controlled legislature is poised out do even Arizona in cracking down on the undocumented. Shortey’s bill narrowly passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will also soon consider a bill denying citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants.

But as happened at the end of previous legislative sessions, strict Senate bills, and a sweeping bill that passed the House last week, will likely draw court challenges if signed into law.

For KGOU, I'm Logan Layden.

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