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Oklahoma law enforcement leaders wrestle with realities of new immigration law

A photo of OKC Police Chief Wade Gourley shared by Mayor David Holt on social media.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt
A photo of OKC Police Chief Wade Gourley shared by Mayor David Holt on social media.

Local law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma are preparing for the implementation of the state’s new law criminalizing people without legal immigration status. Some agencies refuse to enforce it, others say they have no choice — all agree illegal immigration is a problem.

Oklahoma County Sheriff Tommie Johnson spent a Friday afternoon at Crossroads Church on OKC’s southside explaining to a group of about 40 people how he plans to implement the state’s new law called “impermissible occupation.”

Before he did that though, he wanted people to be familiar with the measure’s language. So, he read it to them out loud.

“A person commits impermissible occupation if the person is an alien, and willfully, without permission, enters and remains in the state of Oklahoma,” House Bill 4156 reads.

He explained the law's punishments to his audience: up to a year in jail and/or a $500 fine, and double that for repeat offenders who don’t leave the state within 72 hours.

And he assured them he’ll enforce it.

“Our job is committed to keeping Oklahoma County citizens safe,” Johnson said. “In the space that they do business, in the space that they raise families. And that is our job. We enforce the law and we enforce state statute. Full stop.”

Johnson’s approach is in line with how champions of the law, like Attorney General Gentner Drummond and Republican lawmakers, say local agencies can combat rising drug and human trafficking crimes in the state supposedly caused by increased illegal immigration at the southern border.

Drummond has repeatedly said the measure is meant to give local law enforcement the tools to handle such crimes and protect Oklahomans. He declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation against the state over the law.

‘There’s too many holes in it’

Oklahoma City Police Department Chief Wade Gourley was among the first local law enforcement leaders to oppose the measure.

“If you look back at what the attorney general originally said, when he asked that this bill be created, he specifically mentioned the illegal marijuana trade, and then also he talked about fentanyl and other drug-related problems that are a huge issue,” Gourley said. “This bill went way beyond that.”

Gourley is also a board member of the Oklahoma Association of Police Chiefs. He said lawmakers failed to confer with any local agencies or their state organizations on how they think drug and human trafficking crimes should be handled in their jurisdictions.

He said his department — the largest in the state — doesn’t have the technological resources to enforce immigration at the scale the new law proposes.

“A patrol officer sitting in a police car in the middle of the night encountering an individual and they want to check their immigration status, we have no way to do that,” Gourley said. “You can't get on a computer and pull that up.”

Lack of technological capabilities aside, Gourley says the department is about 500 people short of a full staff of about 1,500. He said his department does not have the physical or mental bandwidth to enforce the law.

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado
Tulsa County Sheriff's Office
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado

“How am I going to explain and train an officer to go, Okay, here's your dividing line, here's where you won't be accused of racial profiling, and we can document and support you in that?”

Gourley is hardly alone. The state’s police chief association released a written statement against the measure shortly after Governor Kevin Stitt signed it.

“It's not just Oklahoma City, it's Tulsa. It's Norman, it's Edmond, it's Moore, you know, pick a city. It's the counties, it's the state agencies and all of that, Gourley said.”

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado backed Gourley up on that. He says the law places too much liability on his deputies.

“There's too many holes in it,” Regalado said. “And I simply won't put them in that position. So, our stance is that we will not ask people for citizenship.”

He said people in the country illegally who are arrested by his officers will go through the existing process at the Tulsa County Jail if deportation is deemed necessary. That process is a partnership with federal immigration authorities.

“If you're arrested, and you come into our jail, you are undocumented, then yeah, you stand the chance of being detained under 287 (G) and then going to immigration court, and they'll determine whether or not you're deported,” he said.

People who are arrested and deemed a threat are flagged, held and eventually handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which is responsible for enforcing immigration laws.

“There's that system in place,” Regalado said. “And that system is a good one because it typically deals with serious offenders.”

The county-federal partnership to identify and deport unauthorized immigrants starts in the already packed county jail, which Regalado said could get overcrowded.

“If we start filling my jail with people arrested under 4156 on top of just your regular arrest, it's gonna shut our jail down pretty quick,” he said.

OSBI implements mobile fingerprint scans

At the state level, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Hunter McKee said in an email to KOSU that many of the demands in the new law - specifically those requiring the sussing out of a person’s citizenship - are already required under different state statutes.

“The OSBI will handle biometric submissions under HB 4156 the same way we handle any other arrest submission,” McKee said, explaining fingerprints and other information are already cross-referenced with federal databases. The state agency is trying to facilitate local departments’ ability to conduct mobile fingerprint searches, but McKee wrote the process is in the early stages.

“The OSBI has facilitated the setup of mobile fingerprint search devices for several agencies, and this may be one way to meet the second cross-referencing requirement of HB 4156, provided it meets the FBI’s requirements,” he wrote. McKee wrote no one at the agency was available for an interview on the topic.

Members of the Latino community in Oklahoma held a peaceful protest against House Bill 4156 on April 23, 2024, outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. That same day, lawmakers approved the measure and sent it to Governor Stitt for approval.
Lionel Ramos
Members of the Latino community in Oklahoma held a peaceful protest against House Bill 4156 on April 23, 2024, outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. That same day, lawmakers approved the measure and sent it to Governor Stitt for approval.

While federal lawsuits are pending, fear among immigrant Latino Oklahomans persists

The law takes effect next week. While Oklahoma is facing two different lawsuits in federal court that may result in a pause in the measure’s enforcement, local police are more likely to be forced to contend with it before that happens.

Texas’ SB4, the law that inspired Oklahoma’s measure, is also caught up in federal court. And Iowa, which also passed a similar measure, saw its version of state-level immigration enforcement struck down.

That means little to Latinos in Oklahoma who worry they may be plucked from the lives of their families and jailed.

Juan Jose Jantes is a pastor for Crossroad Church’s largely Spanish-speaking immigrant congregation and was at the Oklahoma City church to listen to Sheriff Johnson. Born in Mexico, Jantes first arrived in the U.S. without permission in the ‘90s. He became a naturalized citizen in 2020 and has lived in Oklahoma for nearly 30 years.

He said his community is scared.

“I’ve spoken with them and, well, we’re people of faith, so we believe God will protect us, however, the reality of the situation causes fear,” Jantes said in Spanish.

Jantes said most immigrants are like him. They come to the U.S. to work and make an honest living; all they want is a way to prove that.

“What one wants as an immigrant, a working person, is to have a state-issued form of identification or a driver’s license,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if there are extra steps or a higher cost.”

Efforts by Latino lawmakers to amend the measure and provide driver’s licenses to taxpayers, regardless of citizenship status, failed overwhelmingly in both chambers.

Jantes said it comes down to the security of leaving home, and on the off-chance you get pulled over, not having to worry if you're going to see your family that night — or in the predictable future.

“People are wondering, ‘If I get pulled over and I get asked for my documents and don’t have them, what’s going to happen to my children if I get thrown in jail?“ Jantes said.

"They’ll send my kids to DHS and destroy our families.”

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