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An impending Oklahoma law is causing uncertainty among police, immigrant community


In Oklahoma, a law set to take effect Monday would criminalize people without legal immigration status and let local police arrest them. It could still be blocked by the courts. That's what's happened in other states where judges ruled that immigration is the job of the federal government. But as Lionel Ramos reports from member station KOSU, the preparations in Oklahoma have been revealing with divisions emerging among those who will enforce the law if it stays on the books.

LIONEL RAMOS, BYLINE: Oklahoma County Sheriff Tommie Johnson is at Crossroads Church on the south side of Oklahoma City. He's talking to a group of about 40 people who gathered to learn about the new law. But before he does that, he wants people to read it.

TOMMIE JOHNSON: If the person is an alien and willfully, without permission, enters and remains in the state of Oklahoma...

RAMOS: Johnson explains the punishments for the new crime called impermissible occupation - up to a year in jail and/or a $500 fine. And double that for repeat offenders who don't leave the state within 72 hours after being released from custody. And he's going to enforce it.

JOHNSON: Our job is committed to keeping Oklahoma County citizens safe in the space that they do business, in the space that they raise families. And that is our job. We enforce the law, and we enforce state statute.

RAMOS: Johnson's approach is in line with how champions of the law, like the Republican attorney general and lawmakers, say local agencies can combat drug and human trafficking they claim are fueled by illegal immigration, though that link is not proven. But Oklahoma City Police Department Chief Wade Gourley says his department - the largest in the state - doesn't have the resources or officers to enforce immigration at the scale the new law proposes.

WADE GOURLEY: A patrol officer sitting in a police car in the middle of the night, encountering an individual, and they want to check their immigration status, we have no way to do that. You can't get on a computer and pull that up.

RAMOS: Gourley also says enforcing the law would require a lot of training.

GOURLEY: How am I going to explain and train an officer to go, OK, here's your dividing line. Here's where you won't be accused of racial profiling, and we can document and support you in that.

RAMOS: Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado says the law places too much liability on his deputies.

VIC REGALADO: There's too many holes in it, and I simply won't put them in that position. So our stance is that we will not ask people for citizenship.

RAMOS: Regalado says people who are arrested will go through the system his county already has in place, rather than see his officers go out of their way to enforce what's known as House Bill 4156. If they're here illegally and deemed a threat, they will be handed over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which could deport them. Meanwhile, they wait in the Tulsa County jail.

REGALADO: If we start filling my jail with people arrested under 4156, on top of just your regular arrests, it's going to shut our jail down pretty quick.

RAMOS: There are court challenges that could still block the law before it takes effect Monday, like they have already in Iowa and Texas. But for now, there's intense concern among the state's immigrant community.

Juan Jose Jantes is a pastor back at Crossroads Church, where Sheriff Johnson read the new rules. Born in Mexico, he has lived in Oklahoma for nearly 30 years and is now a citizen. He says the immigrant community is scared about how broadly the law will be applied.

JUAN JOSE JANTES: (Speaking Spanish).

RAMOS: He says, "there is fear. People are wondering - if I get pulled over and I get asked for my documents and don't have them, what's going to happen to my children if I get thrown in jail?" He says, "most people want the security to leave home and not have to worry if they're ever going to make it back to their families." For NPR News, I'm Lionel Ramos, in Oklahoma City.


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Lionel Ramos