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Federal government sues Oklahoma over new immigration law

Rep. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval, D-Oklahoma City, gives a speech in opposition to HB 4156 during a protest by the Latino community against the measure April 23, 2024, on the north lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law two weeks later and now the state faces a legal challenge from the federal government.
Lionel Ramos
/
KOSU
Rep. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval, D-Oklahoma City, gives a speech in opposition to HB 4156 during a protest by the Latino community against the measure April 23, 2024, on the north lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law two weeks later and now the state faces a legal challenge from the federal government.

Editor's note: This story was updated Tuesday, May 21 at 4:30 pm after the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma.


The U.S. Department of Justice made good on a promise to sue Oklahoma if it decided to enforce a controversial immigration law. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond says he’s ready to defend the measure in court.

The DOJ had warned Oklahoma officials: enforce the state’s new sweeping immigration law, and you’ll be sued for overstepping your authority.

On Tuesday afternoon, federal officials made good on that promise, filing a 17-page complaint in the Western District of Oklahoma Federal Court.

"The United States brings this action to preserve its exclusive authority under federal law to regulate the entry, reentry, and presence of noncitizens," the lawsuit said.

DOJ attorneys write that it's ultimately up to the federal government to enforce immigration laws and could even strain diplomatic relations between the United States and other foreign countries..

“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a news release. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.”

House Bill 4156, signed by Governor Kevin Stitt late last month, was drafted with help from Drummond. It criminalizes anyone in the state without legal immigration status.

In a May 15 letter to Stitt and Drummond, federal officials say the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Arizona v. The United States established the federal government’s "broad, undoubted power" over the subject of immigration.

“HB 4156 seeks to create a separate state immigration scheme by imposing state criminal penalties for violating the federal prohibitions on unlawful entry and reentry,” the letter reads. “HB 4156 therefore intrudes into a field that is occupied by the federal government.”

Their letter also points out a similar Texas law is already tied up in federal courts.

In a May 17 rebuttal letter, Drummond wrote federal authority over immigration is broad, but not exclusive, and Oklahoma’s law addresses immigration issues within its borders as a sovereign state.

“Oklahoma is exercising its concurrent and complementary power as a sovereign state to address an ongoing public crisis within its borders through appropriate legislation,” Drummond’s letter reads. “Put more bluntly, Oklahoma is cleaning up the Biden Administration's mess through entirely legal means in its own backyard.”

Stitt responded to the threat of lawsuits late Monday.

“The Biden administration refuses to do its job to secure our borders,” Stitt said in a written statement. “ Not only that, but they stand in the way of states trying to protect their citizens. Had the Biden administration set aside politics and done their job, HB 4156 wouldn’t have been necessary. As governor, I will continue to do what is necessary to protect all four million Oklahomans.”

What happens next

A legal fight will likely be long and costly, with both federal and state officials indicating they have no plans to back down.

State Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City, has long been a vocal opponent of the measure. He said the bill is bad both constitutionally and practically because it is unlikely to stand up in court and will have a negative impact on Latinos in the state.

Brooks' day job is as an immigration attorney. He expects an injunction is likely before the law is set to take effect July 1. But pointing toward a massive rally at the state capitol last week, he said the Latino community is paying attention and must continue to be active.

"I think it's important that we remain vigilant," Brooks said. "And so even though I'm confident that this law will eventually be found unconstitutional, I think it's important for us to continue to fight and at this point, we can't let our guard down."

KOSU News Director Robby Korth contributed to this report.


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Lionel Ramos covers state government at KOSU. He joined the station in January 2024.
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