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Gov. Stitt signs Oklahoma's sweeping state-level immigration enforcement bill

Gov. Kevin Stitt explains why he’s undecided about signing HB4156 during an April 19 press conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol building. A week later, he signed the measure.
Lionel Ramos
Gov. Kevin Stitt explains why he’s undecided about signing HB4156 during an April 19 press conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol building. A week later, he signed the measure.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s signature on House Bill 4156 means Oklahoma joins the handful of other states trying to change the status quo of American immigration enforcement.

Stitt’s signing of House Bill 4156 comes one week after the legislature sent it to his desk, and on the last day he could act before it became law without his signature.

“I’m disappointed this bill is necessary,” Stitt said in his signature message. “My sole aim is to protect all four million Oklahomans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or heritage. I love Oklahoma’s Hispanic community and I want to ensure that every law-abiding citizen has the opportunity to pursue the American Dream.”

Sttit said he wants to find a way for people willing and able to work to get state-level permission. He took the opportunity to announce a new task force and repeat a common talking point he has when asked about immigration:

“I am launching the Oklahoma State Work Permits and Visas (OSWPV) Task Force to find ways to bolster our workforce and create opportunities for those who are here contributing to our communities and economy,” he said. “Governors should have more authority over the H1-B visa process so we can better address the workforce needs of our economies. This task force will be a step in that direction.”

Stitt pointed to Chinese immigrants caught crossing the southern border as part of his rationale for signing the measure.

“Our hands have been forced by the unprecedented border security crisis that has seen more than 52,000 Chinese Nationals, along with terror organizations, illegally infiltrate and wreak havoc on our great nation and state,” he says. “Simply put, we will not tolerate threats to our communities and we will not become home to sanctuary cities.”

Republicans in both chambers say the bill protects immigrants here legally and gets anyone who’s committed a crime out – including people who broke the law when they crossed a U.S. border illegally.

Gentner Drummond, the state’s Republican Attorney General, also backs the measure.

Drummond gave lawmakers guidance on the language it should contain, to ensure any courts the bill came before knew why it was proposed.

“HB 4156 gives law enforcement the tools necessary to ensure public safety for all Oklahomans,” Drummond said in a press release following the governor’s approval. “I am grateful to House Speaker McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Treat for their swift action in making the bill a reality.”

House majority floor leader, Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said that much when he defended it on the House floor. “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.

Opponents of the bill, including Democrats in the legislature and a vocal Oklahoma Latino community, say it’s wrong to punish such a broad range of people for the criminal acts of a minority.

As of late last week, Stitt’s office had received about 5,000 calls and emails — many from Latino community members — asking him to veto the bill, according to a spokesperson for his office.

Sen. Michael Brooks, D-Oklahoma City, said he’s considering what’s known as a trailer bill, a proposal that changes the effects of a previously passed piece of legislation.

“The stated purpose of the bill from the Attorney General — and the Speaker of the House — was to be able to address criminal aliens, as well as recent arrivals,” Brooks said. “What this does is also impact those immigrants who have been here long term, have already put down roots and begun paying their taxes.” 

He said he hopes to get a measure protecting those long-term Oklahomans made into law before the end of the session, he just doesn’t know what appetite his fellow senators have for it.

“I’m not sure what their appetite is,” Brooks said, “But when Latinos make up seven percent of the workforce in the state of Oklahoma — the prospects of a mass exodus — these things have happened before.”

He alluded to when a 2010 bill in Alabama, meant to push people without legal immigration statuses out of certain jobs also caused many legal immigrant Latinos to leave work and the state. The exodus created a hole in the workforce, according to reports.

Oklahoma is now among a handful of states that have passed similar legislation. The measure takes effect July 1.

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Lionel Ramos covers state government for a consortium of Oklahoma’s public radio stations. He is a graduate of Texas State University in San Marcos with a degree in English. He has covered race and equity, unemployment, housing, and veterans' issues.
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