Oklahoma Law Criminalizing Immigrants Without Legal Status Is Blocked

A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked Oklahoma from enforcing its new immigration law that would make it a crime to enter the state without legal authorization to be in the United States.

The ruling, issued just days before the law was set to go into effect on Monday, is the latest legal setback for Republican-controlled states that have tested the limits of their role in immigration by passing their own legislation meant to crack down on people who crossed the border illegally. The Justice Department maintains that only the federal government can regulate and enforce immigration.

A Texas law that would have given state and local police officers the authority to arrest undocumented migrants was put on hold by a federal appeals court in March. The Supreme Court had briefly let the law stand but returned the case to the appeals court, which decided to pause enforcement of it.

Then, in May, a federal judge temporarily blocked part of a Florida law that made it a crime to transport unauthorized immigrants into the state. And in mid-June, an Iowa law that would have made it a crime for an immigrant to enter the state after being deported or denied entry into the country was put on pause by a district court.

In the Oklahoma case, U.S. District Judge Bernard M. Jones wrote in his ruling that the state “may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration,” but the state “may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.” He issued a preliminary injunction, pausing enforcement of the law while a case over the law’s constitutionality continues.

Under the new law, willfully entering and remaining in Oklahoma without legal immigration status would be a state crime called an “impermissible occupation.” A first offense would be a misdemeanor, with penalties of up to one year in jail and a $500 fine; a subsequent offense would be a felony, punishable by up to two years in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Gov. Kevin Stitt of OklahomaCredit…Brandon Bell/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After signing the bill into law at the end of April, Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said the measure was necessary because the Biden administration had not taken adequate action to deter migrants from crossing illegally at the southern border.

“Our hand has been forced by the unprecedented border security crisis,” Mr. Stitt said in a statement at the time. “We cannot sit idle as threats to our safety are on the rise due to the Biden administration’s complete failure to offer even minimal protections.”

The number of people crossing the border into the United States has reached record levels under the Biden administration, though it has declined in recent months. Border agents recorded about 170,000 encounters with migrants in May, down from a high of more than 300,000 in December. Unlawful border crossings have plunged further since June 4, when the Biden administration unveiled new restrictions on asylum.

Oklahoma’s law was swiftly challenged. The Justice Department, which sued the state in May, said that the statute violated the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government broad power over immigration.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups also filed a lawsuit on behalf of several individuals and an Oklahoma-based advocacy organization, Padres Unidos de Tulsa. They argued that the legislation could “uproot and expel” thousands of immigrants in Oklahoma and bar others from entering the state, including asylum seekers and those pursuing other lawful immigration statuses.

“This is a harmful law that threatened to tear apart Oklahoma families and communities, and the court was right to block it,” Noor Zafar, a staff attorney at the A.C.L.U.’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.

The state attorney general’s office said on Friday that it planned to appeal Judge Jones’s decision.

Mitch Smith contributed reporting.

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