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


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.”

Last summer the Tulsa police department created a special outreach unit to Latino communities. Tahaie said it appeared driven by a notably increased reluctance of immigrants to report crimes since 1804’s passage. The 1804 law has actually not been strongly enforced, Rice and others say, but its impact is still felt. “It’s not as much about the enforcement as creating a climate in which certain categories of people simply don’t feel welcome,” said Tahaie. “They feel targeted, they are having to basically to look over their shoulder every day.”

It is likely anti-immigrant bills will be introduced again next session.

“It’s a hard dance to do every year – there is a very strong, angry political current among some parts,” said Rice, a former filmmaker who decided to go into politics after his brother was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. He noted that since redistricting, his district has become majority Latino. Once he decides not to run anymore, he hopes to see the state’s first Latino legislator elected there.

Shortey said he needs to protect older, white, long-time residents from what he described as burgeoning crime by Latino immigrants. 

“Their roots are there, they own homes and cannot leave,” he said. “But they’re frustrated and wish they could leave. Why? Are they racist? Some are. I don’t think I am. I’m Native American, I’m married to a Vietnamese woman, I have nephews who are Hispanic and half black. But we’re being affected by illegal immigration.”

He said his constituents – largely retired – aren’t worried about immigrants stealing their jobs, but rather “being shot by an illegal alien that’s in a gang.”

Meanwhile advocates expect an ongoing battle against anti-Muslim bills, even though a federal judge blocked the constitutional amendment from taking effect. The state attorney general is challenging that decision, and this spring legislators led by prominent far-right state House member Sally Kern introduced a law banning “foreign” law from Oklahoma courts.

Kern’s bill reflects a strategy developed by Arizona lawyer and known white supremacist David Yerushalmi that has been the basis for legislation in various states. It passed the state House 76-3. But after a public education campaign by local Islamic groups and resistance from business people who realized the law would complicate overseas investments, that bill died in a state Senate subcommittee.

The civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations sued to invalidate the constitutional amendment, and CAIR Oklahoma executive director Muneer Awad said anti-Sharia laws will never hold up in court. But the rhetoric they facilitate is still damaging.

“I never had a doubt about the legal case,” said Awad. “But the public discourse surrounding these debates is what’s so poisonous to the Muslim community. These politicians will get on radio, TV, and talk in town hall meetings, saying we need these amendments because Islam is violent and dangerous and wants to overthrow our government. Despite the fact that the amendment didn’t make it very far, those sentiments are dangerous and are spread throughout Oklahoma.”

The Muslim community is quite different demographically from the larger immigrant community in Oklahoma. The state’s 15,000 to 30,000 Muslims tend to be either African American converts or legal Middle Eastern immigrants or descendants of immigrants from well-educated and relatively prosperous backgrounds, living mostly in Oklahoma cities. The Latino immigrant community, especially immigrants who are undocumented or have family members who are, were largely drawn to Oklahoma for relatively low-paying jobs in construction, meatpacking and other industries.

Nonetheless the two communities and the state’s general peace and justice activists have joined forces to educate the public about the reality of proposed legislation and to promote tolerance and human rights. This may be symbolized in the figures of Julia and Imad Enchassi. Imad is a popular imam and leader of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. His wife, Julia, is a Mexican immigrant.  

In the hours after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Enchassi and a Muslim friend were questioned by police as suspects. Enchassi displayed his trademark sense of humor as he described the ordeal, joking that their cultural tendency toward lateness meant they were frantically rushing to the airport for his friend to catch a flight to Jordan. Their hurry combined with electrical equipment in his friend’s luggage – and most likely their ethnicity – triggered alarm bells.

“We use humor to try to help them see we’re human,” said Enchassi. “We joke they should outlaw cows in Oklahoma because they might all become Mooslims."

But on a serious note, Enchassi said the center still receives threatening phone calls and Muslims feel they are constantly subject to scrutiny and stereotyping. Awad agreed that prominent local Muslims still get death threats, and Oklahoma Muslims generally feel uncomfortable expressing their beliefs in public, knowing that just months ago almost three quarters of voters called for the anti-Sharia law.

Nathaniel Batchelder, director of Oklahoma City’s Peace House, sees the anti-Sharia and anti-immigrant bills as part of a strategy hatched by evangelical and right-wing leaders in 2004 with an unsuccessful attempt to amend the constitution to outlaw gay marriage, which was already illegal under state law.

“The purpose of that initiative wasn’t to forever ban gay marriage in Oklahoma, what that did was allow religious literalists, fundamentalists and ministers to become very excited and inflamed about urging people to go to the polls and vote,” he said. “What happened as a result was Republican control of both the House and Senate. I believe the bill was a Trojan horse to get motivated conservative voters to go to polls.”

Batchelder sees the same strategy at work in State Question 759, a voter referendum scheduled for the November 2012 ballot that would end affirmative action in Oklahoma under the guise of prohibiting “certain preferential treatment or discrimination.”

In response to these tactics, advocates aim to show moderate voters that the legislators pushing such tactics are “on the fringe,” in the words of Awad, even in a state where Republicans now hold a record majority in both houses and every statewide office. He pointed to controversial statements by Kern this spring that African Americans earn less than whites because they don’t work as hard and women earn less than men because they spend more time with family.

Rice said he thinks many non-immigrant residents have become more tolerant as the immigrant population in urban areas like Oklahoma City increases.

“One interesting thing that’s changing their views is intermarrying – there are a lot of Caucasian-Hispanic marriages,” Rice said. “When someone’s son or nephew or niece marries a Latino person and they become part of the family, people let go of a lot of their prejudicial ideas.”

Rice said the anti-immigration laws proposed in Oklahoma, as around the country, are also another symbol of why meaningful and humane federal immigration reform is crucial.

“The longer Congress fails to do that, it leaves states like us with a vacuum where people like the Randy Terrills and Ralph Shorteys get to take advantage of the situation and play off people’s anger,” he said.

This story was supported by the Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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