Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Oklahoma Immigration Bill Hitting Business. A lot of people didn't know what they were passing when they voted yes on this.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Maxine Grider knows all too well how much her grocery store in south Oklahoma City relies on the area's Latino community to stay in the black.

Since a state law that targets illegal immigrants went into effect almost one month ago, business at Grider's Discount Foods has been off between $50,000 and $75,000 a week.

"It's hit us pretty bad," said Grider, who has operated her grocery store at the same location for 45 years. "I'm sure not satisfied with sales."

If the trend continues, the store will start losing money and its very survival could be threatened.

"It affects your bottom line tremendously," Grider said.

Retailers and employers whose success depends on Latino business and workers have felt the pinch since Oklahoma's anti-illegal immigrant law went into effect on Nov. 1. Some undocumented immigrants have left the state and others are reluctant to venture outside of their homes.

"There is a definite shortage of workers," said Mike Seney, senior vice president of operations for The State Chamber, a business and industry group that represents 1,500 employers statewide.

With Oklahoma's unemployment rate at just 4.2 percent of the labor force _ lower than the national rate of 4.7 percent _ contractors and businesses need workers to fill their labor pools, Seney said.

"They're having trouble finding crews. Some families are just saying, 'I'm out of here,'" Seney said. "I think we're going to have some problems."

Reliable estimates on the number of illegal immigrants that have moved to other states or back to their own country are not available. But Oklahoma homebuilders lost an estimated 10 percent of their work force after the law went into effect, said Mike Means, executive vice president of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association.

"Some people it seems to have hit pretty hard. In other instances the effect has been negligible," Means said.

Home builders expect home prices to go up due to higher labor costs and delays in getting jobs done, Means said.

"When your labor pool tightens up, you may have to wait two weeks to get a roof, or maybe three weeks," he said.

Changes are needed in the law to counteract its negative economic consequences, said Jim Hopper, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Hotel & Lodging Association. Hopper said many of his organization's 250 members have been scrambling to find workers since the law went into effect.

"We're going to be working on the legislation in February to amend it and make it a little bit more palatable for the work force in Oklahoma _ and for the employers," Hopper said.

"We'd like to see the law set aside and maybe reworked," Means said. "All we're doing is running them out of Oklahoma and passing them on to somebody else."
"Word is out that this law is too extreme," said businessman Chip Oppenheim, who owns Oklahoma City's Economy Square shopping center where Grider's Discount Foods is located.

"These people buy cars, they buy gas, they buy bread, they buy homes. And you're telling them to leave?" Oppenheim said. "A lot of people didn't know what they were passing when they voted yes on this."

Seney and others said they believe immigration policy is the responsibility of the federal government and that state regulations are pre-empted by federal law. He said The State Chamber is working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a possible lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Oklahoma's immigration law.

"You can't handle this thing at the state level. It's physically impossible to do so," he said.

The immigration statute was adopted by the Legislature last spring and signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry. It received bipartisan support from state lawmakers who expressed frustration with Congress' inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Among other things, it bars illegal immigrants from receiving taxpayer-supported services and imposes requirements on employers to verify the immigration status and employment eligibility of their workers. Employers who willfully hire illegal aliens would be penalized under the statute.

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Religious Leaders and others have challenged the law in U.S. District Court in Tulsa. The coalition alleges the law targets illegal immigrants and has harmed several people. A federal judge has not handed down a ruling

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