Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | April 18, 2024

Oklahoma lawmakers target illegal immigration

Ray Carter

Illegal immigrants could be arrested by state police for “impermissible occupation” under legislation approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

The bill passed with overwhelming support but was condemned by Democrats who argued illegal immigration is a fake issue.

In a release issued following the bill’s passage, House Speaker Charles McCall said the problem of illegal immigration cannot be ignored by state officials.

“The failure of the federal government to address this issue, and the lack of leadership by the Biden Administration, has turned every state into a border state,” said McCall, R-Atoka. “Those who want to work through the process of coming to our country legally are more than welcome to come to Oklahoma; we would love to have them here. Those who jump the line, and skip the process, cheapen the value of the work put in by those who went through the full legal process to become a citizen of our great country. We will not reward that behavior in Oklahoma, and we will protect our state borders.”

But House Democratic caucus leader Cyndi Munson of Oklahoma City, called the bill “extremist legislation,” dismissed immigration as a federal issue, and said it is not a concern to many Oklahomans.

“This is not a bipartisan issue that comes up on every doorstep,” Munson said. “It is not.”

House Bill 4156, by McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, creates the crime of impermissible occupation, which is defined as occurring when a person willfully and without permission enters and remains in the state of Oklahoma without having first obtained legal authorization to enter the United States.

A first offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $500, and the individual would be required to leave the state within 72 hours of release from custody and prohibited from reentering Oklahoma thereafter.

A second or subsequent offense would be a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a fine of up to $1,000, as well as being kicked out of the state.

The legislation also includes a preemption clause prohibiting municipalities from becoming “sanctuary cities.”

HB 4156 notes the significant public-safety challenges associated with illegal immigration and declares a “crisis exists in Oklahoma.”

“Throughout the state, law enforcement comes into daily and increasingly frequent contact with foreign nationals who entered the country illegally or who remain here illegally,” the bill states. “This is particularly common in regard to illegal marijuana grow operations, which have exploded in number in recent years. Often, these persons are involved with organized crime such as drug cartels, they have no regard for Oklahoma’s laws or public safety, and they produce or are involved with fentanyl distribution, sex trafficking, and labor trafficking. Oklahoma agents and law enforcement partners have seized countless tons of dangerous drugs and arrested untold numbers of traffickers, many of whom entered without authorization through our southern border. This crisis of unauthorized entry and presence is endangering Oklahomans, devastating rural, urban, and suburban communities, and is severely straining even the most diligent and well-resourced state and local governmental entities, civil and criminal.”

Democrats Oppose the Measure

Democrats objected to that description as well as the bill’s provisions.

“All it is doing is furthering our incarceration costs that are already high,” said state Rep. Amanda Swope, D-Tulsa.

State Rep. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval, D-Oklahoma City, dismissed the bill as “strictly political.”

State Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, said the legislation would cause illegal immigrants to go underground. “Whether or not we think they should be here, everyone deserves a right to life, education, and not have to worry about whether or not their status is going to be the thing that drives them back into survival streams of the economy,” she said.

In a press release, state Rep. Annie Menz, D-Norman, said the bill “encourages people to leave the state of Oklahoma,” indirectly bolstering the arguments of supporters who said the bill would deter illegal immigrants from coming to Oklahoma.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said “even just the existence of the bill” is “reprehensible.”

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, called the bill “a license to profile, to arrest people who are different.”

“This bill creates a crime of impermissible occupation, and based on this new crime someone can report their neighbors and say they overhead them say they aren’t here legally, and law enforcement now has a reason to pick them up and detain them until those people can prove they have a right to be here,” Fugate said.

But supporters said the problem of illegal immigration impacts public safety.

During the presidency of Joe Biden, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports there have been more than 7.6 million border encounters, indicating the total number of illegal immigrants who have entered the United States since Biden’s election is nearly twice the total state population of Oklahoma.

Supporters of HB 4156 noted those illegal entrants do not come from only one racial group and often include dangerous individuals who should not be allowed to roam free.

“If you watch any news broadcast you will see it’s not a lot of Hispanics crossing the border,” said state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee. “It’s people from China that would wish to do harm to American citizens. It’s people from the Middle East who would wish to blow up our buildings and to fly planes into our buildings.”

State Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, noted that 180 people who have been identified as terrorists by the federal government have been intercepted illegally entering the United States during the Biden administration.

“To act like we are not in danger as a result of what is happening is foolish,” Echols said.

He noted that laws similar to HB 4156 have been upheld by courts.

“It’s inevitable that someone who is here illegally is going to hit someone with a car or commit some violent crime and injure somebody or kill somebody,” said state Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa. “And what are we going to be left to tell Oklahoma? That we did something? Or that we chose to do nothing?”

State Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, said those who try to paper over the reality of illegal immigrants by using phrases such as “undocumented immigrant” are refusing to face facts.

“That phrase is a fallacy and it’s a farce. Illegal is illegal,” Olsen said. “Suppose somebody drove in such a way, maybe they got caught driving drunk or whatever, and the court decided to take their license away. And they decided to keep driving and they got pulled over and the policeman said, ‘You don’t have a driver’s license.’ And they responded and said, ‘I’m just an undocumented driver.’ Illegal is illegal.”

HB 4156 passed on a 77-20 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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