OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - More than 500 mostly Hispanic protesters rallied at the Capitol on Thursday to denounce as oppressive a new state law that's designed to fight illegal immigration.
The law, called one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration proposals in the nation, gives police new power to detain illegals for deportation by federal authorities.
It also was billed as a way to curb public benefits. But officials of state agencies say benefits will not be affected because they are required by federal law that is merely mirrored in the new Oklahoma law.
The measure, by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, has been blamed for causing fear among the Hispanic population, leading thousands to flee the state. Terrill said that was the intent of the bill.
It has drawn fierce opposition from some religious groups who say they'll continue to provide services to illegal immigrants, despite a provision that makes it a felony to harbor or transport undocumented people.
“We will defy this terrible law. How can you penalize people for helping other people?” asked the Rev. Don Wolf of Duncan, among a group of Catholic priests who have signed a pledge in opposition to the law.
He said church groups are “standing against the misery that this law will cause.”
Several speakers criticized the law by saying it will split up families, causing breadwinners to be deported, leaving behind children who are legal citizens because they were born in the country.
Franco Cevillos, president of the Hispanic Action Coalition and publisher of a Hispanic newspaper, said the law is “racist, immoral.”
He waved a copy of his newspaper, which carried a story on the law taking effect Thursday. “Racism, hatred and intolerance prevailed in OK,” was the headline on the story.
A man who said he was an illegal immigrant said the bill would hurt the Oklahoma economy and penalize people seeking economic freedom.
“We are not criminals. We are not drug dealers. We just want the opportunity to have a better life,” the man said. He identified himself only as Reyes and said he had a business in Oklahoma City.
The Rev. Michael Chapman, a priest at the Holy Angels Catholic Church in south Oklahoma City, urged young Hispanics in the crowd to register to vote to change laws that they consider oppressive.
“You can change things but it will take time and work and education,” he said.
The Rev. Victor Orta of the American Dream Coalition said the law is a misguided attempt to fix a problem that only Congress can solve.
“Congress has failed us. They are using immigration reform as a political football,” he said.
Scott Grass of Mustang got into an argument with some of the protesters when he voiced support for the law.
Grass said he had no problem with immigrants in the country legally, but those who are not “need to go back to Mexico.”
The protest came a day after U.S. District Judge James H. Payne in Tulsa denied a preliminary injunction to stop the law from taking effect. Payne held opponents of the law had not met the burden proof required for a court order.
The law requires law enforcement agencies to hold for federal immigration authorities undocumented workers charged with DUI or a felony.
Police officials generally have said they do not plan to stage raids or roundups of illegal immigrants.
Hispanic officials say fear among immigrants has been the greatest in Tulsa, where sheriffs' deputies have trained with federal immigration authorities.
Under the law, immigrants in the state on work visas will be issued drivers' licenses stamped “temporary.”
Also Thursday, Clark Curry of Edmond, local leader of the John Birch Society, delivered to the office of Gov. Brad Henry nearly 2,700 signatures on a petition opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Curry told Paul Sund, Henry spokesman, his group wanted to thank Henry for signing the bill into law after it was passed by the 2007 Legislature.
The petitions accepted by Sund called on members of Congress to reject amnesty. Clark said they were collected in 2006 at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City.
Curry said the John Birch Society had probably less than 1,000 members in Oklahoma, but they included some members of the Legislature. He said members' names are kept confidential.