January 10, 2008

USAT Report on Okla. Immigration Law Impact Heavy on Anecdotes, Light on Facts and Stats

USA Today’s Emily Bazar wrote a long article Wednesday (“Strict immigration law rattles Okla. businesses”) on the early impact of Oklahoma’s recently-passed immigration reform legislation, apparently now well-known as “1804,” or “House Bill 1804, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007, arguably the nation’s toughest state law targeting illegal immigrants,” which became effective November 1.

Bazar’s report is dominated by plenty of downbeat anecdotes and dire warnings to relay to her readers from employers and others. Here are a few:

….. workers at the sprawling Greenleaf Nursery were prepping for deadly frosts. They needed to ship plants, erect greenhouses and bunch trees together to protect them against the cold.

But in late October, about 40 employees disappeared from the 600-acre nursery about an hour’s drive from Tulsa. “Some went to Texas, some went to Arkansas,” nursery President Randy Davis says. “They just left.”

Why did the workers, all immigrants, flee? “Those states don’t have 1804,” Davis says.

….. Many business owners are especially nervous about provisions of 1804 that kick in July 1, when employers with government contracts must start checking new hires against a federal database to make sure they are legally eligible to work. If the employers don’t, they won’t get the contracts.

“I’ve already had customers who came in here and told me they’ve fired employees because they didn’t know if they were here legally,” says Tim Wagner, an owner of Cocina De Mino, a Mexican restaurant in Oklahoma City. He predicts industries such as agriculture will face worker shortages.

Widespread reports of vanishing employees and schoolchildren suggest thousands of illegal immigrants have left Oklahoma for neighboring states or their native countries. Cotton gins, hotels and home builders have lost workers. Restaurant and grocery store owners complain of fewer customers.

Some businesses and lawmakers are warning that the economic effects will hit consumers hard.

….. Republican state Rep. Shane Jett, who opposed 1804, offers a more dire prediction. Without changes, the law “will be the single most destructive economic disaster since the Dust Bowl,” he says.

….. At Plaza Santa Cecilia, a mall filled with Hispanic shops in Tulsa, Simon Navarro’s customer base has evaporated. Navarro, owner of a money-wiring service, says 500 people would come in every day to send money to relatives in Mexico and Central America. “Now,” he says, “I have 100.”

Bazar supplied roughly five paragraphs containing statements from or information supplied by 1804 supporters. Though it is admittedly a bit early to objectively assess the law’s impact, she apparently made no attempt to see if there might be unemployed citizens available to do the jobs illegals are leaving behind, or to see if the cost or other pressures on health-care facilities providing care to illegals might have eased.

If she had looked at information from the US Bureaus of Labor Statistics (BLS), Bazar would have seen little evidence of a seriously tightening labor market.

Since BLS does not ask about citizenship status when it conducts its monthly household employment surveys, you might expect that the Sooner State’s unemployment rate would have gone down in recent months given the imminence of 1804. You would be incorrect. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which was 4.1% in November 2006, was at 4.5% in November 2007 (latest info available), and up from 4.3% in September. The probably more relevant unemployment rate before seasonal adjustments, which was at 4.8% and 5.1% in October and November 2006, was up to 5.4% in both October and November 2007. These changes are roughly in line with or greater than the general increase in the unemployment rate throughout the US during the same time period.

As to health care and government assistance, Bazar completely overlooked the possibility that that 1804 may have prevented a continued influx of additional illegals and their attendant costs. My quick take, based on an admittedly cursory review of statistics at the state’s Department of Human Services, indicates that Food Stamp, Medicaid, and other program participants and costs had been growing significantly for several years until the spring of 2007 (1804 was reluctantly signed in May by Democratic Governor Brad Henry), and then began leveling off or declining (a link to October’s monthly statistics, the latest available, is here; navigation to other months and years can be done from that page; all data files are in Excel format).

I don’t have the time to definitively determine the reasons why Oklahoma’s entitlement costs appear to have leveled off (Bazar’s full-time job is to do that, isn’t it?), but if 1804 has been largely responsible, wouldn’t that be news?

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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