Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law last month that gives law enforcement broader authority to arrest undocum...

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law last month that gives law enforcement broader authority to arrest undocumented people. Photo by Nate Billings for the PBS NewsHour

How Oklahoma’s undocumented community is preparing for expanded immigration enforcement

Nation 

OKLAHOMA CITY — Angelica Villalobos' phone keeps ringing.

When she picks up, the immigrant rights advocate calmly advises her clients what to do:

Drive with caution. Don't attract extra attention. Don't panic. And don't leave the state.

Under a new Oklahoma bill signed by the Republican governor on April 30, law enforcement in the state will have broader authority to arrest people living in the U.S. illegally.

"All I ever wanted was that shot at the American Dream and to stop being afraid."

Oklahoma's Republican-led Legislature declared in the bill that "a crisis exists in Oklahoma," alleging that people who live in the U.S. illegally are often involved with drug cartels, fentanyl distribution, and sex and labor trafficking. The ACLU of Oklahoma, along with other local groups have called House Bill 4156 "one of the country's most extreme anti-immigrant bills."

Through her organization, Immigration Connection Empowerment, Villalobos spends her normal day-to-day translating documents from English to Spanish for clients, getting people registered to vote and helping them apply for aid programs. Now she's giving advice to clients on how to stay safe.

"All I ever wanted was that shot at the American Dream and to stop being afraid," said Villalobos, who moved to the U.S. when she was 11 and later gained citizenship. "I want that for my community."

Angelica Villalobos' yearslong work as an immigrant rights advocate encountered the latest roadblock this week as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law on April 30, that gives officers at the state level the authority to arrest people living in the U.S. illegally. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

Angelica Villalobos' yearslong work as an immigrant rights advocate encountered the latest roadblock this week as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law on April 30, that gives officers at the state level the authority to arrest people living in the U.S. illegally. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

The law, which goes into effect July 1, creates a new crime called "impermissible occupation," and imposes penalties for willfully remaining in the state without legal authorization to enter the United States. The first offense is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a fine of up to $500 or both. A second offense is a felony with up to two years in prison, a fine doubled up to $1,000 or both. The person would be required to leave the state within 72 hours following their conviction or after they're released from custody.

Oklahoma is the latest Republican-led state to push a bill that broadens the reach of immigration enforcement. Oklahoma's law echoes Texas' Senate Bill 4, which allows the state to arrest and deport people believed to be in the country illegally. That law is currently on hold while it's being challenged in the courts.

Oklahoma Republicans said the law was necessary to protect public safety, blaming the challenges at the border on the Biden administration. State Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who requested that lawmakers craft the legislation, said in a statement that Oklahoma "has reaped the consequences of the Biden Administration's utter failure to secure our nation's border, as evidenced by the flood of illegal marijuana grows and other criminal activity connected to Chinese syndicates and Mexican cartels."

The bill, he added, would allow state law enforcement to combat these types of operations.

In coauthoring the legislation, Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, argued that people who live in the U.S. illegally are connected to cartels, drugs and trafficking in the state.

That claim doesn't align with recent testimony from U.S. Homeland Security officials. During a border security and drug enforcement subcommittee meeting in July, agency officials outlined that nearly 90 percent of fentanyl seizures happened at entry points, often at border checkpoints for vehicles.

U.S. citizens also accounted for more than 73 percent of fentanyl seizures at the border, James Mandryck, a senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told lawmakers at the hearing.

Further data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that 88 percent of those caught trafficking fentanyl were Americans in fiscal year 2022. In the previous fiscal year, that figure was 86 percent.

Before Stitt signed the bill, Villalobos and other local organizations protested the measure. Students at several local high schools also held walkouts against the bill. For the past two weeks, advocates and allies made more than 10,000 calls, and sent thousands of letters and emails to the governor's office urging him not to sign the bill.

Villalobos said her organization stressed to lawmakers how valuable Oklahoma's nearly 69,000 undocumented immigrants are to the state. They pay $200.5 million annually in federal, state and local taxes, according to the American Immigration Council. The immigrant rights nonprofit also determined that the spending power of immigrant households in Oklahoma is $5.5 billion.

"[Lawmakers] are so afraid of us they don't see the value we bring to this state," she said of the lawmakers who championed this bill. "This community gives and gives, and we never ask for anything.

Gov. Stitt said in a statement that his sole aim was "to protect all four million Oklahomans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or heritage." He added that the bill was "not a stop and frisk" type of bill and he said his office would not tolerate prejudice in enforcing the law.

"I love Oklahoma's Hispanic community and I want to ensure that every law-abiding citizen has the opportunity to pursue the American dream."

Tamya Cox-Touré, ACLU of Oklahoma's executive director, said Oklahoma's law is further proof that the state's Republicans are more interested in political clout than helping immigrant communities.

"[This law] will undoubtedly lead directly to racial profiling and subjecting thousands of Black and brown Oklahomans to the state's criminal legal system," she said in a statement. "Local law enforcement lacks the expertise and the constitutional authority to interpret and enforce immigration law. Our immigration system is broken, and we need solutions to create a more fair, humane, and efficient system. HB 4156 is not the answer our communities need or deserve."

CJ Garcia of DREAM Action Oklahoma, addresses a small crowd on how to protect themselves after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed HB 4156, which allows law enforcement to arrest people living in the U.S. without documentation. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

CJ Garcia of DREAM Action Oklahoma, addresses a small crowd on how to protect themselves after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed HB 4156, which allows law enforcement to arrest people living in the U.S. without documentation. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour

A day after the governor signed the bill, local groups like Dream Action Oklahoma, a community-based immigrant advocacy group, held a listening session to help undocumented people to learn their rights and navigate and what to expect under the new law.

CJ Garcia, who helped organize the event, emphasized to the nearly a dozen people in the room that they have rights, belong in Oklahoma and that Stitt's words would not scare them away.

"We want to give our community the tools to stay safe," they said. "No matter if this law sticks or not, we know this type of law enables people who already have anti-immigrant feelings to act on them."

The goal, she added, is to "empower people to keep their dignity and stand up for themselves."

Garcia, 35, said they felt like an outsider growing up undocumented in Oklahoma City.

Garcia said she had college applications rejected, was kicked out of classes in high school, and found roadblocks to accessing medical care all because she didn't have citizenship status.

That discrimination continues today through bills like HB 4156, they said. This is the first year that all graduating high school students in Oklahoma are required to pass a citizenship test to receive their diplomas.

"The people in power in this state continue to erode the humanity of people different from them," Garcia said. "It's just cruel."

For Villalobos, she's feeling the strain of having so many people look to her for answers following this bill's signing. She's seeing an increase in meetings by phone instead of people coming into her office, and she's already heard about people leaving the state.

"It's just racism," she said of what's driving people away. "Pure and simple. It's frustrating, and I'm tired."

At one of the rallies at the Oklahoma State Legislature, before the bill was signed, Villalobos said she was chastised by a woman for carrying the Mexican flag with her.

They told her it was disrespectful. Villalobos fired back.

"I'm proud to be a Mexican American because we are making history, building this country, contributing to this economy," she said. "It's not about brainwashing us into a white culture but embracing who we are and where we come from."

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