Immigration Raid Impacts Small Oklahoma Town

Sunday, February 25th 2007, 1:51 pm
By: News On 6

SULPHUR, Okla. (AP) _ A saddle company that lost 51 employees after an immigration raid last August still has an idle production line and is struggling to return to normalcy.

Immigration agents raided Billy Cook Harness & Saddle's downtown factory Aug. 2, and 51 illegal workers were either deported to Mexico or are awaiting deportation proceedings.

Owner Billy Cook, who avoided prosecution and fines, had 75 employees the day of the raid, 24 the day after. Officially, Cook has replaced 26 of the 51 lost workers, but he has hired many more than that over the past six months.

``They come and they go. They may stay one day, two days, a week. Or you hire them and they don't show up,'' Cook said.

He has advertised in area newspapers for jobs that pay $6 an hour to start, with a 50-cent raise and health insurance after 90 days.

Cook is searching for help in a county with a 2.9 percent unemployment rate _ sixth-lowest in the state. Low unemployment rates put upward pressure on wages, and businesses that cannot afford to pay more can get left behind, said Lynn Gray, chief economist for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

``Some businesses are not going to be competitive at the going wage rate, and they're not going to be able to do business there,'' Gray said.

Without enough trained workers, saddle production has fallen 40 percent from last year, and Cook said he hopes to just break even. But he insists his business will make it: ``We're going to put this thing back together.''

Meanwhile, the raid had a ripple effect through the economy of this Murray County town of 5,000, where Billy Cook Harness & Saddle was one of the largest employers.

``You can't lose that many people out of the work force and out of the community without it having an impact,'' said Shelly Sawatzky, director of the Sulphur Chamber of Commerce. ``You're looking at rentals. You're looking at gas ... groceries ... laundry soap ... the schools,'' she said.

Before the raid, Cook was putting $35,000 a week on the street in after-tax payroll. Today it is about half that, he said.

The raid also took its toll on the city's demographics. The 51 deported workers made up almost a quarter of Sulphur's Hispanic population _ 230 at the last census.