Anti-immigrant laws punish families and children. Oklahoma lawmakers pass them anyway. (2024 Legislative Wrap-up)

Immigration is a complex issue, and gridlock in Congress has resulted in states venturing deeper into a legal area reserved solely for the federal government. In a state like Oklahoma, this means that lawmakers introduce punitive immigration policies meant to deter immigrants from making Oklahoma their home. However, these policies are unconstitutional and unnecessarily punish Oklahoma families. Instead of pushing through anti-immigrant bills that hurt all Oklahomans, lawmakers should pass inclusive policies that positively impact all Oklahomans, including immigrants.

Lawmakers considered multiple anti-immigrant bills this session

This session, lawmakers filed a barrage of anti-immigrant bills that took aim at everything from children to contractors. 

House Bill 3071 by Rep. Neil Hays, R-Muskogee, sought to bar undocumented immigrants, including undocumented children, from receiving any “benefits” that are funded with state money drawn from tax funds and restrict nonprofits that receive state grants from using these funds to serve undocumented clients. When it was first filed, this bill went as far as to bar children who are U.S. citizens with undocumented parents from accessing the services as well, and it could have even barred children from attending public schools.This bill lacked enforcement provisions and would have subjected nonprofits to additional administrative burdens, possibly pushing charitable organizations like food banks to verify immigration documents before giving out a meal. HB 3071 also ignored that undocumented immigrants are already ineligible to receive most federal and state public benefits, despite the fact that immigrants, regardless of status, pay more into these programs than they take out. HB 3071’s vague and punitive terminology could have eliminated the few bare-bone benefits that undocumented immigrants do qualify for if it was passed, but the bill failed to meet a deadline and died in the Senate.

Another punitive anti-immigrant bill considered this session was HB 4090 by Rep. David Hardin, R-Stillwell. It sought to create a minimum five-year felony sentence for any Oklahoman arrested and found to be undocumented, skipping due process by automatically charging undocumented Oklahomans over something as simple as driving without a license. Further, the bill directed law enforcement to detain Oklahomans who they suspected are undocumented, essentially relying on racial profiling and discrimination for its enforcement. By racially targeting Oklahomans and sowing fear into our communities, this bill would have negatively impacted our state’s families and workforce; growing our prison population, separating parents from their children, and enacting discriminatory laws will not make us safer. HB 4090 died after it did not get heard on the House floor, but the same punitive and unwelcoming sentiment resurfaced in HB 4156, a bill that did become law.

Lawmakers passed anti-immigrant bills that will have a negative impact on all Oklahomans

While a number of anti-immigrant bills died during session, two prominent bills made it through the legislative process and were signed into law. 

HB 3623 by Rep. Erick Harris, R-Edmond, burdens Oklahoma contractors and subcontractors who work with the state by requiring them to adopt costly systems to vet their employees’ work authorization status. While HB 3623 simply adds enforcement language to a law that has been on the books since 2007, the law will make it harder for contractors who provide essential services to the state to fulfill their contracts by subjecting companies to high administrative costs. Additionally, the State Purchasing Director, who is responsible for all acquisitions used or consumed by state agencies, will have to take on the additional responsibility of verifying affidavits even though the bill does not account for the cost of creating an affidavit verification system and the additional staff needed to implement the law properly. The fiscal impact statements for the bill did not include estimated costs for implementing this and subsequently staffing it. The governor signed HB 3623 into law in April.

The most egregious law to pass this session, however, is HB 4156 by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. Signed into law by the governor in April, HB 4156 creates a new crime called “impermissible occupation,” which will apply to any person who enters and remains in Oklahoma “without having first obtained legal authorization to enter the United States.” The first offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and/or $500 fine, while the second offense a felony, punishable by two years in jail and/or $1,000 fine. Under both offenses, a person who violates this law has to leave Oklahoma three days after their conviction or release, whichever comes later. The only exceptions made are for Oklahoma immigrants with an asylum status, lawful presence, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). While individuals with these statuses are exempted from this criminal charge, they could still be arrested and jailed if they could not immediately confirm their status.

This law threatens Oklahoma families. More than 63,000 Oklahomans live with at least one undocumented family member. It creates a way for law enforcement to separate our friends and neighbors from their loved ones and it instills fear in our communities. It will also harm our economy: almost three percent of Oklahoma’s workforce are undocumented immigrants. This law’s chilling effect could also deter undocumented and mixed-status families, from reporting crime to law enforcement, eroding trust between law enforcement and communities with immigrants. In fact, the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police has spoken out against the law, citing concerns that HB 4156 will make law enforcement officials’ jobs more difficult.

Oklahoma should not legislate based on national rhetoric

HB 4156 is an example of Oklahoma legislators copying other states’ anti-immigrant laws, not responding to issues on the ground here. The bill’s legislative path reflected that. Lawmakers suspended legislative rules for HB 4156 and passed it through the legislature in only 15 days, and the measure passed on party line votes. Despite thousands of calls to the governor to veto it, he still signed the measure into law. 

Elected officials passed HB 4156 with the goal of making Oklahoma the least attractive state for undocumented people. The reality is that HB 4156 and other anti-immigrant policies will hurt our state by breaking up families, pulling needed workers out of the economy, and compromising trust between communities and law enforcement. In our state, more than 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for more than five years — half of whom have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade. Oklahoma would be better served by passing inclusive immigration policies that embrace our communities and ensure all Oklahomans can contribute to our state. For instance, legislators could expand access to driver’s licenses to improve public safety and lower insurance rates. They could allow ITIN filers, who pay millions in state taxes annually, to receive the state-level Earned Income Tax Credit.  They could expand our labor force by supporting inclusive immigration policies.

Inclusive immigration policy is good for everyone

Punitive laws like HB 4156 will not address the root causes of migration or affect the southern border. Instead, they punish families for daring to make Oklahoma the place they call home as they work for a better life for themselves and their children. Oklahoma lawmakers need to focus on inclusive immigration policies that have positive spillover effects for all residents. When we build systems that work for marginalized populations, we ensure no one falls through the cracks, and we honor Oklahomans who contribute to our economy and communities. We have a responsibility to look after all Oklahoma residents, regardless of their immigration status.


Gabriela joined OK Policy as an Immigration Policy Analyst in August 2021. Raised in Oklahoma City, she graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies with minors in German, Arabic, and International Security Studies. During college Gabriela had internships at the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma, the Office of former Congresswoman Kendra Horn, and she took part in events to help educate first-generation Latinx students on how to attend college. Gabriela looks forward to using her skills at OK Policy to work towards a more equitable future for all Oklahomans.