No piece of legislation in Oklahoma in the past decade was more controversial or contentious than HB 1804. Passed in 2007, HB 1804 – officially designated the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Act – enacted a series of restrictions intended to limit access to jobs and public services for undocumented immigrants and to expand the powers of state and local law enforcement to verify the legal status of those they encounter.
Supporters and critics alike labeled HB 1804 as among “the toughest anti-illegal immigrant bills in the nation”. Supporters fervently hoped, while opponents fervently feared, that passage and implementation of HB 1804 would have a significant effect on the undocumented population of the state, encouraging many to leave the state and deterring others from coming, while making life harder and more precarious for those who remained.
But what has been the actual impact of HB 1804? The Urban Institute, a respected national research organization, has just released a study, commissioned by the National Council of La Raza, titled “Untangling the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act: Consequences for Children and Families” that looks closely at the effects of HB 1804. The study was based on interviews with a wider range of leaders of Oklahoma’s immigrant communities, public officials, community service providers, schools, law-enforcement and others, as well as focus groups with immigrant parents in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The report’s main findings can be broadly summarized into two major points. The first is that passage and implementation of HB 1804 has not had a dramatic impact on immigrants’ use of public services. The report finds little evidence of change in use of health care services, public school enrollment, or participation in Head Start programs. Despite much sound and fury about tightening eligibility for public benefits, the reality was that undocumented immigrants were already precluded from accessing most public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare or cash assistance, following passage of federal legislation in the mid-1990s. The verification requirements mandated by HB 1804 for public benefits were already in place prior to the bill’s passage. At the same time, access to public school, basic health care, and services provided by non-governmental agencies remain outside the scope of both federal restrictions and HB 1804. The main changes in access to services attributable to HB 1804 involved new requirements to show proof of legal residency for professional licenses issued by the Health Department (e.g. food handler certificates and physician licenses) and tighter requirements that apply to all state residents for access to vital records (e.g. death and birth certificates) and drivers license renewals after expiration .
Yet if the tangible consequences of HB 1804 have been mostly limited, the report stresses that HB 1804 has contributed to a genuine “culture of fear” among immigrant families. They write:
Members of the Latino community live in fear of being deported and consequently separated from their children. At the same time, the legislation appears to have provided an opening for anti-immigrant sentiment in the state and to have furthered anti-immigrant legislative proposals.
The report suggests that the culture of fear in the immigrant community is partly the result of HB 1804 and partly a result of a number of separate immigration enforcement activities pursued by federal and local authorities, such as the “287(g) agreement” signed by the Tulsa County sheriff’s office with federal officials in 2007 that has led to stepped-up arrest and deportation of immigrants detained on traffic-related violations. The controversial provision in HB 1804 making it a state felony to harbor, shelter, and transport unauthorized immigrants has been exercised on very few occasions. However, a less-prominent section that requires jails to verify the legal status of detained individuals has had more far-reaching consequences in triggering legal processes that can lead to deportation.
If opponents of illegal immigration were looking to HB 1804 to make the case that states could, on their own, regulate immigration and solve the issues associated with the nation’s undocumented population, the Urban Institute report suggests they are probably disappointed. The report concludes:
HB 1804 is largely superseded by federal law, especially when it comes to eligibility for public benefits, services, and prohibitions on transporting, concealing, harboring, or sheltering unauthorized immigrants.
However, to say that this dog’s bark was worse than its bite is not to dismiss its importance. If the true point of HB 1804 was to make unauthorized residents and others in the immigrant community feel more uncomfortable and unwelcome in Oklahoma, then the legislation may still have accomplished its goal.