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The Immigrants are OK!

Scott Gurian

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Pinata
(Scott Gurian)
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The first thing you need to know about Capitol Hill is that it's not actually anywhere near Oklahoma's state capitol building. In the middle of Oklahoma City, which often seems defined by wide streets, chain stores and strip malls, Capitol Hill is a compact little neighborhood with its own unique character. Like any other neighborhood, there are churches, banks, stores and a movie theater, but most of the signs in their front windows are in Spanish. Randy King is the Publisher of "El Nacional," a local Spanish-language newspaper. He meets us at the corner of SW 25th St. and Harvey Ave., in the heart of Capitol Hill, to begin our tour of the neighborhood.

The first stop is Tortilleria Lupita, a tortilla factory and convenience store that supplies restaurants and meat markets throughout Central Oklahoma. King says it's a really popular place that probably makes the best tortillas in the state. Inside, the walls are painted fluorescent lime green, and they're covered with framed, sepia-toned photos of Pancho Villa and other Mexican revolutionaries. Owner Elias Pando says he's been saying goodbye to some of the regulars lately.

"There are a couple customers that used to come here often," he remembers. "They told us before they left, "it's [our] last time coming here and buying from you. A lot of people moved to Kansas." The reason many of them moved to Kansas, he explains, is because they have family there and the immigration laws are less strict. But, he adds jokingly, they can't get tortillas like those made at Tortilleria Lupita.

The next stop on Randy King's tour is MaxPollo, a Mexican sports bar known for its seafood and grilled chicken. It used to be extremely busy on the weekends, but owner Max Gaona says he's seen a lot of empty tables recently. A lot of people no longer come to the restaurant, he says, and he estimates his sales over the past three or four months have dropped 25-30 percent. But Gaona insists that the there are many misperceptions about the new immigration law and that most people in the neighborhood really have nothing to fear.

Oklahoma's new immigration measure just took effect in November, but many members of the Hispanic community started leaving as soon as it became inevitable it would become law. Critics charge it's poorly written, and its vague language has led to a lot of confusion and rumors about what it actually means. Gaona says that's caused his customers to have all sorts of fears and concerns, whether or not they're justified. The climate of fear has also affected the neighborhood's discount grocery store down the street.

"They did roadblocks just to check people out for their papers," recalls Budget Food owner Kay Garner. "They held one for about two hours right in front of my store. We were dead in here. It was just horrible!"

Garner has been a business owner in Capitol Hill for more than two decades, and she's never seen anything like this. She says her customers have pretty much stopped shopping during the days and started coming in the evenings, since they feel safer after dark. And there's more bad news. With all the bounced checks she's received recently, she's either selling or closing her doors for good by the end of the month.

Not everyone's hurting, though. "El Nacional" publisher Randy King says his newspaper's readership has actually gone up, as people are hungry for news about the state's immigration law. He says many Hispanics do think something needed to be done about the influx of undocumented immigrants, but he calls this new approach misdirected and misguided.

"And," he says, "it was so emotionally-charged that I don't think people thought about the long-lasting effects of how this was going to affect the state." Others seem to agree, as there's growing opposition from the business community and even legislative efforts underway to repeal the original law.

But some state lawmakers say Oklahoma should go even further. One is working up a measure that would classify undocumented immigrants as "human contraband." Anyone caught transporting or aiding them under that proposal could have their property seized, as in a drug bust.

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  • By Ricky Super

    From Denver, CO, 02/10/2009

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