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Federal judge stops Oklahoma immigration law from taking effect, Latino community reacts

Oklahomans rallied outside the State Capitol building by the hundreds on May 15 to protest the signing of HB 4156 into law. The demonstration took place during the annual Hispanic Day at the Capitol.
Lionel Ramos/KOSU
Oklahomans rallied outside the State Capitol building by the hundreds on May 15 to protest the signing of HB 4156 into law. The demonstration took place during the annual Hispanic Day at the Capitol.

A federal judge said Friday that Oklahoma’s new immigration law cannot take effect because it undermines federal authority by allowing local police to engage in immigration enforcement. It’s a ruling that aligns with how federal courts in other states have handled legal action over similar laws.

Western District Court of Oklahoma Judge Bernard Jones writes in his order that while Oklahoma may have “understandable frustrations” with problems caused by illegal immigration, the state cannot enact policy that undermines federal law.

Oklahoma’s House Bill 4156 allows local police to arrest unauthorized immigrants and jail them — a job usually reserved for federal authorities.

The Department of Justice and a group of activists and individuals sued the state promptly after Governor Kevin Stitt signed the measure into law in April. They said it preempts federal purview over immigration matters.

Jones agreed. He issued a preliminary injunction — essentially a pause — on enforcement of the measure while the court deliberates further.

His ruling aligns with judges' decisions in Texas and Iowa, which recently stopped similar laws. And just like the justices in those states, Jones hinged much of his reasoning on the United States of America v. Arizona, a 2012 court battle over the legality of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070. That measure also regulated entry and reentry into the U.S. and was struck down for overstepping federal authority.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond vowed to appeal Jones’ decision shortly after it went public, repeating a familiar talking point.

“The Biden Administration’s complete failure to enforce federal immigration laws made House Bill 4156 a necessity,” Drummond wrote in a press release. “We intend to appeal today’s decision and defend one of the most powerful tools we have to fight the criminal activity largely being fueled by illegal aliens in Oklahoma.”

Tamya Cox-Toure, executive director at the ACLU of Oklahoma, called the order a relief for Oklahoma families in a press release but acknowledged that the litigation isn’t over—and the order stopping the law is not final.

“The court’s instruction to the State of Oklahoma is clear — it may not enforce HB 4156 while our litigation proceeds,” Cox-Toure said. “We are grateful for the relief this provides to Oklahoma families while we continue to fight for the rights and safety of Oklahoma’s immigrant communities.”

While Gov. Kevin Stitt and Republican lawmakers who supported the bill have remained quiet, House Democrats in the Latino Legislative Caucus released a statement supporting Jones’ ruling.

Reps. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval, D-Oklahoma City, and Annie Menz, D-Norman, called the passage of House Bill 4156 political theater.

“This bill was a clear political stunt meant to secure the primary elections of our Republican leaders and it wasn’t even successful,” Menz said. “Instead, it targeted a large portion of Oklahoma, angered law enforcement officials, and attempted to bypass the constitution. An injunction is the obvious choice.”

Alonso-Sandoval backed her up.

“HB 4156 is a cheap political move that will cost taxpayers millions and will only manage to lose an essential workforce to the state,” he said. “Oklahoma will be so much better once we are willing to have conversations about actual solutions.”

Latinos, immigrant community responds with relief

President of the Honduran Association of Oklahoma, Anita Menijvar, told KOSU on WhatsApp that she feels profound relief. She said many people she knows were scared to the point of near-panic and struck with depression.

“When it was approved by the Senate, it got a lot worse for people,” Menjivar said in a Spanish audio message. “I remember a gentleman came to my house in a fit of panic. I almost called an ambulance because I’d never seen anything like it."

“He was telling me, ‘I’m a criminal now, I am worth nothing, they’ll tie me up and treat me like some murderer.’ That was a powerful episode for me.”

Catalina Lozano, 46, has lived in Oklahoma City for 22 years and cleans homes for a living. She’s Mexican and lives in the country without federal permission, along with her husband and three sons—two of whom are citizens.

She experienced the same spike in worry and fear as Menjivar.

“Families like mine are here to work and have a better life than before,” Lozano said in a WhatsApp message to KOSU. “We have to cope with racism as soon as we get here – with fear of being stopped by police, and when HB 4156 came around, the fear and frustration associated with just going out to work was even higher.”

Lozano said that when the court released its decision to temporarily pause the law, she and many others were able to breathe again.

Menjivar, who is a citizen, said rallying the immigrant community against the law and seeing first-hand how worried people became was a reality check. It reminded her why Latinos voting in local and state-level elections is important.

“I realized it’s so important to vote in our local elections because I could feel the discrimination coming from our state lawmakers,” Menjivar said. “We only have three representatives in the State of Oklahoma legislature.”

She said she’s guilty of only ever voting in national elections.

“I am one of those people who has never voted at the state level,” she said. “I’ve realized not only that I should vote, but also encourage my family, friends and neighbors too.”

Menijvar said the passing of HB 4156 had a positive outcome. Although it’s been hard on the community, she said, it’s also united the Latino and immigrant communities in Oklahoma around a common issue, making them stronger than before.

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