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Council kills ordinance barring public money from undocumented immigrants

Tulsa City Councilor and mayoral candidate Jayme Fowler speaks on his proposed ordinance barring public money from assisting undocumented immigrants as YWCA worker Amanda Sibrian looks on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Tulsa City Hall.
Max Bryan
Tulsa City Councilor and mayoral candidate Jayme Fowler speaks on his proposed ordinance barring public money from assisting undocumented immigrants as YWCA worker Amanda Sibrian looks on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, at Tulsa City Hall.

City Councilor and mayoral candidate Jayme Fowler’s ordinance to keep city money from serving undocumented immigrants was killed by his fellow councilors on Wednesday night before it reached public comment.

Fowler has described the ordinance as a preemptive measure, pointing to larger, more progressive cities that have taken on busloads of immigrants from Texas. He argued the city is “wanting to take on” more people in need of services, in addition to its unhoused population, despite no efforts from council or other government bodies to move undocumented immigrants to Tulsa.

Council voted 6-2 to keep the ordinance from going to public comment and a potential final vote. Fowler said in a news release he plans to bring the ordinance back after a required 90 day waiting period.

Councilor Grant Miller, who joined Fowler in voting against killing the ordinance, took issue with the it being struck before residents have a say. But Councilor Crista Patrick said it needed to die.

“For every time that we say that it’s okay to question someone’s immigration status is another time a child or a person is getting threatened because of the way that they look,” said Patrick, who previously walked out of a committee meeting because she found the ordinance offensive.

Fowler called the move to keep the ordinance from public comment “a cheap shot.”

At a committee meeting earlier that day, Fowler said his ordinance prepares Tulsa for “what is happening today.” Record numbers of undocumented immigrants crossed the southern border into the United States last year — something he argued a similar state law passed in 2007 didn’t take into account.

Councilors had accused Fowler of drafting an impractical ordinance, pointing out how nonprofits that don’t check for clients’ identification accept public money appropriated by the city. Fowler amended the ordinance to only withhold public money from nonprofits that knowingly serve undocumented immigrants.

Multiple councilors argued the new language made the ordinance worse. Patrick said some undocumented immigrants have children who are citizens, and that the ordinance would impact how they take care of them. Fowler said Patrick’s point didn’t pertain to his ordinance.

At the regular meeting, Tulsa VFW commander Joshua Starks said the ordinance “makes no sense” and is “useless legislation” because it doesn’t have teeth.

Starks, who fought in Afghanistan, also told councilors the ordinance was “wrong on so many levels.” He said he knows Afghan interpreters who came to Tulsa in 2021 who aren’t citizens yet, but whose temporary stay has expired.

“There are men and women who fought with me, who fought with brothers and sisters of the past, that are waiting for their recognition, and some of them will die waiting for that recognition. But they don’t give up hope, and we shouldn’t give up hope on them either. We shouldn’t give up hope, and we shouldn’t ban them from getting services when they need it,” said Starks.

“These folks were approved entering into our country before they arrived,” Fowler said of Afghan refugees. “These people at our southern border, they did not.”

Despite Fowler claiming to have worked with outside parties to update the ordinance, multiple councilors were skeptical given the new language. Councilor Christian Bengel told Fowler he’s had adequate time to work collaboratively with other councilors and experts if he wished to pass the ordinance. He compared Fowler’s approach to “a grade school kid who’s come to a school over and over, adding a different sentence, thinking they can get it through.”

Bengel has argued the ordinance would take on responsibilities better suited for state and federal governments.

“If this is how you choose to do it, I’m more than happy for people to be pissed off at me because I voted against it, and I don’t care who it is,” said Bengel.

Fowler has denied the ordinance is related to his run for mayor, but before the vote to kill it, he said he wants “everyone to remember who cast this vote.”

“Every last one, I will see you in the political season,” he said

“I want everyone to remember who brought this ridiculous ordinance to the table,” said Councilor Phil Lakin.

Lakin also accused Fowler of not working collaboratively, and of playing politics. Fowler raised his voice at Lakin, claiming councilors are “wanting to take on more” people in need of services.

“Absolutely crazy, Lakin. Come on. Grow up,” Fowler shouted

In a news release Thursday, Fowler said his effort to pass the ordinance has “just begun.”

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.