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Oklahoma's anti-immigration bill inches closer to becoming law; legal challenges expected

Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, introduced HB4156 to the House floor Thursday, April 18, 2024. The measure passed along a 77-20 party-line vote.
John Huntley
/
Legislative Service Bureau
Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, introduced HB4156 to the House floor Thursday, April 18, 2024. The measure passed along a 77-20 party-line vote.

Oklahoma is a step closer to criminalizing people in the state without legal immigration status.

House Bill 4156 was introduced by the majority floor leader Rep. Jon Echols, R–Oklahoma City. The measure creates a new crime in Oklahoma called “impermissible occupation,” aimed at addressing increased illegal immigration into the state.

Despite an at times tense three-hour back and forth between Echol’s and about a dozen Democrats, the measure passed along a 77-20 party-line vote. It now moves to the Senate for consideration, where some representatives hinted it would likely share the same fate and eventually land before Gov. Kevin Stitt.

It’s in the courts where the biggest challenge is expected, Echols said.

Still, Echols said the bill is common sense policy for Oklahoma in light of the federal government’s failures to secure the southern border and rejected claims that the bill allows for racial profiling, which he said he “abhors in all of its forms.”

“Nothing inside this bill will allow racial profiling,” he said. “It should never be okay. And it is not okay. And I do trust our law enforcement to not do that.”

Democrats questioned essentially every aspect of the bill, from how it would impact the state’s workforce and incarceration populations to how police would enforce the crime and what would happen to families with mixed immigration statuses.

Reps. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval and Annie Menz each tried to amend the measure to ensure officers who make wrongful arrests face consequences and to protect people who can prove they’ve lived and paid taxes in Oklahoma for a long time.

Republicans swiftly denied those efforts, and in response, Alonso-Sandoval accused them of engaging in election-year theatrics instead of the work required to address the border crises — which both parties agree exists.

“One thing to me is clear: This bill is strictly political,” Alonso-Sandoval said. “This is not policy-focused. It's not solution-focused. It's campaign messaging.

“And the proof of that is the failed amendments that my colleague and I had tried to implement to approach the immigration crisis in a more comprehensive way.”

Echols was elected in 2012 and can’t run for House District 90 again.

During the debate, House members of both parties brought politically charged personal elements to their arguments for or against the measure. Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, quoted the bible in the bill’s defense.

“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a nation,” Olsen said, using Proverbs 22:28 to justify his reasoning: “I read one part of the book that said ‘remove not the ancient landmark.’” Rep. Jason Lowe said the language in the bill “scares him to death.”

“We're on the House floor talking about whether people will have to have their documents and papers,” Lowe said. “It brings me flashbacks of slavery.”

Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, pointed out that much of the conversation around the measure had nothing to do with one of the key issues the bill explicitly aims to address: problems with cartels and the distribution of marijuana and fentanyl.

“Why are we including those two clauses referencing the trouble of marijuana cartels and fentanyl distribution, if we intend to apply the law to everyone in the state illegally, for whatever circumstance?” Waldron asked Echols.

Echols responded that language was Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s idea to ensure judges can see why the bill is necessary whenever the measure is challenged in the courts.

“The attorney general helped draft that language to make sure that when challenged because I'm sure this will be challenged, the court will understand the purposes behind the legislation,” Echols said.

Lionel Ramos covers state government at KOSU. He joined the station in January 2024 after covering race and equity as a Report For America corps member at Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Oklahoma City.