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What's the Matter With Oklahoma? State Launches Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Muslim Crusade

While Oklahoma does not have a large immigrant population, the state has become an example of the illogical nature of anti-immigrant and anti-Islam laws.

Oklahoma has relatively few immigrants – about 5 percent of the population – but it has long been in the vanguard of anti-immigrant and more recently anti-Muslim legislation of the type sweeping the nation.

Last fall more than 70 percent of voters passed a constitutional amendment outlawing the use of Sharia law in Oklahoma courts, and state legislators have also pushed anti-Sharia laws, even though the Muslim legal code has never been introduced in an Oklahoma courtroom. On June 14 the Oklahoma state Supreme Court upheld most provisions of the state’s strict anti-immigrant law, passed in 2007 and seen as a precursor to Arizona’s infamous legislation. And this year Oklahoma City state senator Ralph Shortey introduced a suite of anti-immigrant laws including one billed as “Arizona Plus.”

Shortey is Native American and as a child lived on a South Dakota reservation. He said that’s one of the reasons he wants to send a message to undocumented immigrants that they are “not welcome” in Oklahoma. In March Shortey told a group of reporters with the Institute for Justice and Journalism that he knows what it feels like to have one’s land stolen, and he doesn’t want it to happen again through an influx of undocumented immigrants.   

The bill he introduced would order police to enforce immigration law, allow law enforcement to confiscate the property of undocumented immigrants -- including homes and cars -- and could criminalize providing social services and otherwise interacting with undocumented immigrants.

Shortey, a freshman legislator whose district was actually majority Latino until recent redistricting, also wrote laws that would mandate English-only, re-interpret the 14th Amendment so that children of undocumented immigrants would not be citizens, and prevent undocumented college students from getting in-state tuition.

Civil rights advocates say Oklahoma is an example of the illogical and political nature of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim state laws, since the state as a whole and specifically the areas where constituents disproportionately supported the measures have small immigrant and Muslim populations. But advocates also say the ultimate failure of Shortey’s bills this year shows that even in one of the nation’s reddest states, coalition-building and activism can defeat proposals based on hate and fear.

Shortey and other anti-immigrant legislators had hoped their bills would build upon HB 1804, the draconian anti-immigrant law passed in 2007 and then challenged in court. Waves of Latino immigrants – documented and undocumented – left Oklahoma after 1804’s passage, according to many accounts. On June 14 the state Supreme Court ruled that almost all the bill’s provisions are constitutional.

The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Randy Terrill (who is facing felony bribery charges for allegedly trying to persuade a Democratic legislator not to run for re-election), hailed the decision as a major victory and an affirmation of statewide anti-immigrant sentiment. Such sentiment, Shortey said, fueled his Arizona Plus bill.

“You have Democrats and Republicans who want Arizona Plus, legal Hispanics and everybody else who wants it,” Shortey told reporters in March. “Little babies come out screaming ‘We want Arizona Plus.’ I can’t ignore them.”

But after passing in a Senate subcommittee, the Arizona Plus bill eventually died. A coalition of community activists, human rights groups and social service organizations lobbied hard against it. Pro-immigrant legislators refused to back even a watered-down version of the bill, according to state senator Andrew Rice, whose south Oklahoma City district borders Shortey’s, while other right-wing legislators thought it didn’t go far enough.

Mana Tahaie, director of racial justice programs for the YWCA in Tulsa, said the bills proposed by Shortey had a definite impact on immigrants even though they didn’t pass. “When a bill is proposed, often people hear about it and think it’s law,” she said. “There’s a heightened climate of fear and anxiety.”

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