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Opinion

Arizona immigration law: painful lessons from Oklahoma

Arizona may soon regret its new immigration law. Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2007 that deeply hurt its people and economy.

By Sally Kohn / April 28, 2010



New York

In late 2007, Oklahoma legislators enacted what was then the nation’s toughest anti-immigrant law. Mere months later, state Sen. Harry Coates – the only Republican legislator to vote against the measure – said, “You really have to work hard at it to destroy our state’s economy, but we found a way. We ran off the workforce.”

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Perhaps the only upside of Arizona’s new, even harsher anti-immigrant legislation is for Oklahoma, where immigrants and citizens may flee as Arizona’s economy crumbles in the aftermath of its hateful legislative action.

Oklahoma HB 1804, passed in November 2007, cut off undocumented immigrants from state services and made it a crime for anyone, including citizens, to provide transport or assistance to undocumented immigrants.

One study suggests the bill led to an estimated 50,000 people fleeing Oklahoma and a 1.3 percent drop in economic output statewide. As a result, Oklahoma may well have incurred $1.8 billion in economic losses, just as it, like the rest of the nation, was bracing for recession.

That’s a steep price to pay for what even some proponents of the law have acknowledged is a rarely enforced, mostly symbolic measure that has the primary impact of creating a “culture of fear” for the state’s Latino community, both legal and nonlegal residents, causing not only economic harm but psychological pain as well.

It is this culture of fear that connects Oklahoma and Arizona. Both are states littered with crumbling farms and factories and aging populations who feel that any prospect of prosperity is passing them by.

But instead of building a 21st century global economy that works for everyone, Oklahoma and Arizona imagine that kicking out new immigrants will somehow turn the clock back 30 or 40 years, to some heyday that never really existed but, more to the point, could never exist again in our current context.

Immigrants who are stimulating our economy now come from Mexico and the Philippines, not Germany and Poland. Our greatest economic prospects lie in information technology, not corn or manufacturing. Exurbs and urban renewal lure young people to the coasts more than ever. But the reality is, that is nothing new.

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