Oklahoma’s new immigration law halted: House Bill 4156

On April 30, 2024, Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 4156 into law, a controversial piece of legislation that criminalizes the presence of undocumented immigrants in the state of Oklahoma. The new law, which took effect immediately, sparked significant debate and concern among various communities and organizations. This bill is part of a broader trend of states taking immigration enforcement into their own hands due to perceived inaction at the federal level.

However, on June 28, 2024, a federal judge approved an injunction to pause HB 4156 while a federal lawsuit against the State of Oklahoma proceeded. The lawsuit claims that Oklahoma law violates the Constitution since federal law regulates entry into the country, not the laws of individual states. It’s important to note that the injunction could be temporary if the State of Oklahoma wins the lawsuit.

Overview of House Bill 4156

House Bill 4156 aimed to address illegal immigration by creating the crime of “impermissible occupation.” Under this law, any individual who willfully and without permission enters and remains in Oklahoma without legal authorization to enter the United States is subject to criminal penalties. The bill outlines the following penalties:

  • First Offense: Classified as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, a fine of up to $500, or both. Additionally, the individual must leave the state within 72 hours of release from custody and is prohibited from reentering Oklahoma.
  • Second or Subsequent Offense: Classified as a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. The individual must also leave the state within 72 hours of release from custody and is prohibited from reentering Oklahoma.

Legislative intent and controversy

The bill’s proponents, including Governor Stitt and several Republican lawmakers, argue that HB 4156 is necessary to protect Oklahoma’s citizens from the perceived threats posed by undocumented immigrants, including involvement in organized crime and drug trafficking. They assert that the federal government’s failure to secure the southern border has forced states like Oklahoma to take matters into their own hands.

However, the bill has faced substantial opposition. Critics, including civil rights groups, law enforcement organizations, and immigrant advocacy groups, argue that the law will lead to racial profiling, strain law enforcement resources, and harm immigrant communities who have long contributed to the state’s economy and culture. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of HB 4156, citing conflicts with federal immigration law and potential violations of due process rights.

Impact on the immigrant community

HB 4156 has caused significant anxiety and fear among Oklahoma’s immigrant communities. Many undocumented immigrants, who have lived in the state for decades and contributed millions in tax dollars, now face the threat of criminal prosecution and deportation. The law’s broad definition of “impermissible occupation” means that even those without any criminal history could be targeted.

Law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about the potential for increased mistrust between police and immigrant communities. The Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement leaders have warned that the law could deteriorate public trust and complicate efforts to ensure community safety.

What it means for Oklahoma industry

If House Bill 4156 is here to stay, could have far-reaching economic impacts on Oklahoma communities, particularly in critical sectors such as agriculture, construction, and hospitality. Undocumented immigrants make up a substantial portion of the agricultural workforce in the United States. Nationally, they constitute about 44% of all farm workers. In Oklahoma, noncitizen farmworkers accounted for 17% of all farmworkers between 2007 and 2011. The agricultural sector is already experiencing labor shortages, which have led to unharvested crops and increased food prices. The enforcement of HB 4156 could worsen these shortages, leading to further economic losses and potential disruptions in the food supply chain. 

The construction industry depends heavily on immigrant labor for both skilled and unskilled positions. Removing undocumented workers could lead to project delays, increased labor costs, and a slowdown in construction activities, affecting the state’s overall economic growth. Additionally, undocumented immigrants contribute significantly to the hospitality sector by filling essential roles that are often challenging to staff with native-born workers. HB 4156 could lead to decreased service quality and increased operational costs, ultimately affecting the profitability of Oklahoma businesses.

According to the Migrant Policy Institute, approximately 66% of Oklahoma’s undocumented population is employed. Many of these individuals are homeowners, have children, and live above the poverty level. They contribute significantly to the state’s economy through consumer spending, business ownership, and economic growth. The loss of this community could lead to a reduced labor force, decreased tax revenue, increased operational costs for businesses, and potential legal challenges for Oklahoma.  

Limits of state-level immigration laws

While states can create their own immigration laws, they must adhere to the guidelines outlined in the US Constitution. The US Department of Justice has emphasized that “setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.” Historically, states that have enacted strict immigration laws have often seen these laws overturned by the federal government.

Arizona’s SB 1070, passed in 2010, required state and local police to question the immigration status of anyone stopped for a state law violation if they reasonably suspected the person was in the country illegally. The law allowed police to arrest and detain people who could not prove their legal status. As a result, the state faced significant economic backlash, including boycotts and loss of tourism revenue. Parts of the law were eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.

Texas passed Senate Bill 4 in 2017, which allowed state and local police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they detained or arrested. The law also prohibited local jurisdictions from adopting policies that limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities. This led to widespread fear among immigrant communities and strained relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they serve. The law faced numerous legal challenges and was partially blocked by federal courts.

In 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1718 into law, including several measures to curb illegal immigration. Specifically, Section 10 of the law made it a felony to transport individuals who federal immigration authorities had not inspected. Reports indicated that local food service businesses were losing long-time employees, and customers were afraid to go to public places. The agriculture and construction industries, heavily reliant on immigrant labor, faced significant disruptions, with abandoned construction sites and threats of boycotts from truckers. In May 2024, a US District Judge issued a rule to block the enforcement of Section 10 and stated that the law exceeded Florida’s authority by criminalizing actions that fall under federal jurisdiction.

Task force and future actions

In response to the anticipated challenges and unintended consequences of HB 4156, Governor Stitt announced the formation of the Oklahoma State Work Permits and Visas Task Force (OSWPV). This task force is charged with exploring ways to secure work visas or similar documentation for undocumented immigrants, allowing them to remain in the state without the threat of separation from their families and livelihoods. The task force is expected to submit its findings and recommendations by August 31, 2024.

House Bill 4156 represents a significant shift in Oklahoma’s approach to immigration enforcement, aligning the state with others that have taken a more aggressive stance on undocumented immigration. While the bill’s supporters argue it is necessary for public safety, its critics warn of the potential for widespread harm to immigrant communities and legal challenges that could ultimately block its implementation.

What to do if you are arrested under HB 4156

Although this bill is temporarily paused, it’s important to know your rights. If the law is reinstated and you or an undocumented family member is arrested under House Bill 4156 in Oklahoma, it is crucial to take specific steps to protect your rights and navigate the legal process. Here are the recommended actions:

  • Remain calm and do not resist arrest. Resisting can lead to additional charges.
  • Exercise the right to remain silent. Do not answer any questions about your immigration status or provide any information that could be used against you.
  • Immediately ask for an attorney. You have the right to legal representation, and it is essential to have a lawyer present before answering any questions. If you cannot afford an attorney, request a public defender.
  • Ensure your family or friends know your situation. They can help coordinate with legal representation by collecting documents that prove your identity, residency, and legal status, such as work permits, visas, or asylum applications.
  • If you have a matricula consular ID from the Mexican Consulate, it may be recognized as validation of legal presence in Oklahoma and could be crucial in your defense.

At Stump and Associations, we know how crucial it is to stay informed about the developments surrounding HB 4156 and to provide guidance and support to those affected by this new law. We encourage individuals who may be impacted to seek legal advice and explore all available options to protect their rights and remain in Oklahoma.

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