Illegal Immigration Hearing Brings Civility, Progress, and Answers

Commissioner of Labor Brenda Reneau said Wednesday’s hearing on illegal immigration, held at the State Capitol, was “a good start” in finding the truth about costs to Oklahoma’s taxpayers.

Reneau said a tone of civility at the hearing was a pleasing alternative to harsh invective the issue often provokes. Because federal officials have not addressed issues of illegal immigration, she said, citizens are demanding system reforms through state and local governments.

The Oklahoma City hearing attracted specialists, government officials, concerned citizens, and activists across the spectrum, “including some who almost never communicate directly with each other because of emotionally charged differences,” Reneau commented. “It’s gratifying to bring people together for civil discourse and progress who otherwise avoid each other. The differences were clear, yet I admired the desire of so many to find a way to move forward through use of accurate, detailed data and not mere opinion.”

Mary Stalnaker, director of family support services for the Department of Human Services, said 99.3 percent of her agency’s public assistance goes to American citizens. The approximately .06 percent going to illegal immigrants is mostly for labor, delivery and emergency services mandated under federal law. An estimated $2.3 million a year is spent on illegal immigrants in the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, testimony revealed.

Paul Kirkpatrick, representing the Department of Corrections, testified that about 1.5 percent of incarcerated persons are illegal immigrants, most them Hispanic males. Kirkpatrick’s “snapshot” found 379 illegal aliens or “detainers” in prisons. At a roughly $20,000 a day, that amounts to about $7.4 million a year. Commissioner Reneau noted the constant fluctuation in prison populations means the number could be higher or lower.

The hearings underscored Reneau’s concern that hard figures are difficult to come by when it comes to illegal immigration. Patti Davis of the Oklahoma Hospital Association testified hospitals provide some $515 million in uncompensated care for the state’s uninsured and under-insured. No estimate of how much of that goes for illegal immigrants is possible due to federal regulations, she noted. Steve Ronck, deputy commissioner at the Oklahoma Health Department, also reported that health officials do not check legal or illegal status, due to federal restrictions.

Lynn Gray, chief economist with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said no data program exists to provide “hard numbers” on the number of illegal immigrant workers in the state, what they pay in taxes, the costs of services for them and other concerns.

At Reneau’s request, two state Labor Department employees also testified.

Don Hankins, senior amusement ride inspector, said about 50 percent of ride operators at the State Fair in Oklahoma City do not speak English. In the “Kiddie Land” section, that percentage sometimes reaches 90 percent, he said. The number of operators unable to speak English is lower at the Tulsa State Fair and at county fairs, he told Reneau and the hearing panel. The agency works with bilingual supervisors to maintain key safety standards but, Hankins said, the lack of English proficiency is a rising safety concern. Laurie Allen, director of the Asbestos Division, said the number of non-English speakers in Oklahoma’s asbestos contractor workforce has reached 74 percent, roughly double what it was a decade ago.

Joining Commissioner Reneau on the hearing panel were Jimmy Curry, president of the state AFL-CIO, Olly Olivas, an Oklahoma City civil rights activist and member of the American GI Forum, and Don Schooler, general counsel at the Labor Department. Others testifying included Pat Fennell, Latino Community Development Agency, Adrian Privett of the Carpenters Union, Shawnee businessman Steve Antosh, Shirley Cox of Catholic Charities, retired Border Patrol agent Steve Merrill, and Ed Romo of the activist group LULAC. Carol Helm, with Immigration Reform for Oklahoma Now (IRON), also made a brief statement.

Trey Davis, Reneau’s chief of staff, entered into the hearing record a three-inch-thick binder of documentation the state Labor Department staff has gathered in recent months. Davis also clarified agency procedures in workers’ compensation and wage claim investigations.

Commissioner Reneau said, “I was encouraged that so many people who are so passionate about these issues came together in such a productive way. This was a diverse, interesting and intelligent group. Everyone with useful information has something to offer. In such an important matter, race should be neither a weapon nor a shield. We should be able to speak candidly and without animosity about what is best for our country. I think that happened.”

Jeronimo Gallegos, a Labor Department compliance officer, said the hearings demonstrated “that over the past few years the agency has been a pro-active, customer-friendly state government agency that provides all the resources available. The Labor Department provides bi-lingual employees and translated materials so that employees can reach out, educate and inform all Oklahoma wage earners and employers of their rights.”

Reneau pointed to a study issued last winter in Minnesota, “the only one of its kind,” that estimated the direct cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers there ranged from $148 million to $188 million. Program costs came in K-12 public education, public assistance health care programs and incarceration. Commissioner Reneau said the Minnesota study found costs were partially offset by illegal immigrants who paid income and other taxes, including “stranded withholdings” never recovered by illegal workers. “Ideally, if enough information is forthcoming from the appropriate state agencies, it will be possible in time to construct a similar analysis of costs and benefits in Oklahoma,” Reneau said.

“We made a good start with these hearings, and I’m grateful to everyone who participated. There’s still a lot of work to do to get a firm handle on the total cost of illegal immigration to Oklahoma government. I hope the upcoming meetings in Guymon (September 12) and Tulsa (September 19) will sustain this progress. As work continues, I will as necessary use the open records act to get the truth – or at least as much of the truth as possible,” Reneau concluded.

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