Laws aimed at hiring illegal workers drive many to Texas.

Crackdown in nearby states brings influx

By JAMES PINKERTON

Illegal immigrants are flowing into Texas across its long borders. But they aren’t just swimming across the Rio Grande from Mexico or making dangerous treks through the rugged desert.

Instead, a new rush of illegal immigrants are driving down Interstate 35 from Oklahoma or heading east to Texas from Arizona to flee tough new anti-illegal immigrant laws in those and other states.

Though few numbers are available because illegal residents are difficult to track, community activists say immigrants have arrived in Houston and Dallas in recent months, and they expect hundreds more families to relocate to the Bayou City soon.

”They’re really tightening the screws,” said Mario Ortiz, an undocumented Mexican worker who came to Houston after leaving Phoenix last year. ”There have been a lot coming — it could be 100 a day.”

The growing exodus is the result of dozens of new state and local laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration. The two toughest measures are in Oklahoma and Arizona.

The Oklahoma statute, which took effect in November, makes it a crime to transport, harbor or hire illegal immigrants. Effective Jan. 1, the Arizona law suspends the business license of employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. On a second offense, the license is revoked.

”It’s a wave that’s happening across the United States,” said Nelson Reyes, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Houston, which has helped immigrants who recently relocated in Houston from Virginia and South Carolina. ”There is a migration, within the United States, to the states and cities more receptive to the reality of the undocumented immigrant.”

So far, results of the new laws have been dramatic.

No restrictive laws here

In Oklahoma, one builder estimated that 30 percent of the Hispanic work force left Tulsa. Reports out of Arizona indicate that several restaurants have closed in Phoenix because of a shortage of workers, and vacancies at apartment complexes are increasing, in part because of departing immigrants.Experts predict immigrants will flock to Houston and other cities in Texas because of the state’s reputation as a welcoming destination.

The construction industry in Texas has largely weathered a national housing slump, they note, adding there is a long tradition of relying on skilled labor from Latin America.

And so far, Texas has not passed any statewide law targeting the employment of undocumented workers.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 1.6 million illegal immigrants were in Texas in 2006.

”Texas is still very much an entrepreneurial place, where you can find your place in this economy,” said James Hollifield, a Southern Methodist University professor and migration expert. ”It’s not an immigrant’s paradise, but if you work hard and keep your head down you can get ahead.”

Mayra Figueroa, director of American For Everyone, a Houston nonprofit that advocates for labor rights of immigrants, said the strict laws in other states are pushing immigrants to Houston.

”There were a lot of people moving from Houston to Oklahoma, and now they’re coming back because they are not able to work,” said Figueroa, adding that many of them are Central American refugees. ”I can say hundreds of families are coming to cities like Houston, because of the law.”

But the influx of undocumented workers into Texas is not welcomed by everyone. Critics say illegal immigrants are taxing government resources, such as hospital emergency rooms and public schools.

”That is not good,” Larry Youngblood, leader of the Houston chapter of the Texas Border Volunteers, said about the new wave of immigrants. ”We’ve got about 400,000 to 450,000 in Houston already. And obviously they’re not all day laborers — not all are criminals — but we don’t need more.”

”We have to assume they’ll bring some wives and kids with them, so therefore our schools will be re-inundated. And traffic will be worse, too.”

Labor up, income down

Some of the new residents are working as day laborers in Houston including Oscar Jeovani Fernandez, a 36-year-old Honduran native who left Oklahoma.He said he is lucky now if he can work two or three days and earn $150 a week — a far cry from his steady job pulling down $600 a week hanging wallboard for a home builder near Tulsa.

”I was working there in September, but they passed a law that allows the local police to act like immigration agents,” Fernandez said. ”I came here 25 days after they passed the law — I wasn’t going to let them experiment on me.”

Ortiz, a native of southern Mexico, said he left Phoenix eight months ago working 60 to 70 hours a week as a nursery worker.

Immigration agents raided his job site, but he evaded arrest.

Now, he’s standing on Houston street corners. He said that in a good week he can pick up two or three days of yardwork. He barely earns enough, after paying his rent and food bills, to send money home to his wife and son in Tabasco state.

”Here, they let you work. Over there, they won’t. There is a lot of racism, but here there isn’t — it’s better,” Ortiz said of Houston. ”They welcome you here in Texas, because here, they don’t do anything to you.”

Enrique Hubbard, Mexico’s consul general in Dallas, said a dozen Mexican families from Okahoma have applied for consular documents listing their new residences in the Dallas area. He expects more to arrive because jobs are available in North Texas.

”There is opportunity in construction in the housing market in Dallas, so they will move here,” he said. ”Perception is very important, and a lot of people see this negative attitude growing so they say, ‘Let’s look for another place,’ particularly if they have relatives and contacts in another place.”

Taking their leave

The flight from Oklahoma began the month before the new law known as House Bill 1804 took effect, business leaders in Oklahoma say. In Tulsa, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has estimated that 15,000 to 25,000 illegal immigrants have left the area.”Thirty percent of our Hispanic labor force left Tulsa — it was a huge hit, and it was almost overnight,” said Greg Simmons, owner of Simmons Homes, Tulsa’s largest home builder.

Based on his conversations with subcontractors, Simmons said they went to Texas and Kansas or returned to Mexico.

Jose Alfonso, pastor of the Cornerstone Hispanic Church in Tulsa, said 15 percent of the congregation’s 425 members have left for Texas or California.

”It’s been a very difficult situation for our church and the Hispanic community,” said Alfonso, whose church is one of several who are challenging the law in federal court.

Business leaders say local police in Tulsa have mounted a campaign to target immigrants and have deported many after they were arrested for minor traffic offenses.

”I think we swung the pendulum too far; we’re hurting people, the immigrant families, and we’re going to hurt the economy,” said Mike Means, executive vice president of the Oklahoma State Homebuilders Association, which has 3,600 members across the state.

‘A tremendous impact’

The effect of the new law can be seen in the many signs advertising rental property vacated by departing immigrants, said David Castillo, the executive director of the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.”There’s been a tremendous impact in Oklahoma City,” Castillo said. “We’ve had several companies close shop and leave the state. Banks have called us and say they’re closing 30 accounts per week.”

As the implications of laws in other states play out, Hubbard, the Mexican consul from Dallas, doubts many immigrants will go back to Mexico.

‘I think they will relocate. They will at least give it one more try,” Hubbard said. ”It’s very difficult to cross the border, and expensive, too.”

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5509022.html

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