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Oklahoma faces second lawsuit over new immigration law

Immigrant Oklahomans and their supporters march around the Oklahoma State Capitol in protest of HB 4156, a sweeping immigration law criminalizing people without legal status, April 23, 2024.
Lionel Ramos
Immigrant Oklahomans and their supporters march around the Oklahoma State Capitol in protest of HB 4156, a sweeping immigration law criminalizing people without legal status, April 23, 2024.

Advocacy groups have joined the legal battle against state-level immigration enforcement in Oklahoma. Theirs is the second lawsuit filed against the state this week in response to House Bill 4156.

Legal challenges against the state of Oklahoma for passing a measure that enforces federal immigration law are mounting.

The ACLU Oklahoma Chapter, National Immigration Law Center and Tulsa-based law firm Rivas and Associates are suing Oklahoma on behalf of two plaintiffs over the immigration measure criminalizing anyone in the state without legal immigration status.

The plaintiffs are the Latino student advocacy group Padres Unidos of Tulsa and Ximena Monserrat Lopez Mena, a lifelong Oklahoman who was brought to the United States as a child and whose family is of mixed immigration status.

It’s the second immigration lawsuit filed against Oklahoma after Attorney General Gentner Drummond welcomed threats of litigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The complaint says the state is overstepping by legislating matters of immigration, an authority usually reserved for the federal government.

Elissa Stiles is the Rivas and Associates lawyer representing the plaintiffs. She said people like Lopez Mena could be separated from their loved ones by being jailed, despite not knowing any other home but Oklahoma.

“They're the kinds of people who are so integral and foundational to our communities, who are going to be so unjustly affected by this bill – ripped from their families and their communities and the businesses they may have built,” Stiles said. “And it’ll be just for something that happened perhaps many decades ago, even when they're in the process of getting lawful status.”

Drummond and Gov. Kevin Stitt are in lockstep when it comes to the need for Oklahoma to protect its residents from the effects of federal failures at the border.

Drummond told Oklahoma City’s Fox 25 that the federal government has the wrong idea about HB 4156. “We’re not attempting to enforce immigration,” he said in an interview with the station. “Our intent is to give law enforcement a path, a vehicle through which we can abate illegal activities in the state of Oklahoma.”

Stitt said, during a May 24 press conference, that he supports defending the bill. He said the bill does nothing but enforce existing law and Oklahoma is committed to being “a law and order state.”

“News flash,” Stitt said. “You can’t come into our country illegally. So now you have the federal government suing the state of Oklahoma, saying ‘Don’t enforce the law.’ And like all the law enforcement have said, they're not rounding anybody up.”

Oklahoma City Police Department Chief Gourley has already come out against the measure. He said immigration is a federal job and that his department doesn’t have the resources, officers or technical infrastructure to enforce the new law.

“We’re not set up to check immigration status,” Gourley said. He explained that federal agencies maintain those databases, which are only cross-referenced with state databases once someone is booked into jail.

He said a better solution to illegal immigration and its accompanying challenges may have come up if local law enforcement was involved in discussions about the language in the law.

“Local law enforcement, and our capabilities to enforce the law as a group, had zero input,” he said. “They didn't bring us into the mix, because had they, they would’ve realized those issues.”

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