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DOJ Sues Oklahoma After State Took Combatting Illegal Immigration Into Its Own Hands

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As Oklahoma seeks to assert its authority in regulating the presence of illegal immigrants within its borders, the federal government has stepped in, alleging that the state’s actions violate the Constitution and federal immigration laws.

At the heart of the conflict is Oklahoma’s House Bill 4156 (HB 4156), which was signed into law in 2023. This legislation aims to impose criminal penalties on individuals living in the state without legal immigration status.

Specifically, the law makes it a state crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, to reside in Oklahoma without proper documentation.

Read: Oklahoma Becomes The Latest State To Take Immigration Enforcement Into Its Own Hands

The passage of this law has drawn the ire of the DOJ, which has filed a federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. The DOJ argues that HB 4156 violates the Supremacy Clause and the Foreign Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grant the federal government exclusive authority over immigration matters.

In its lawsuit, the DOJ contends that Oklahoma’s law undermines the federal government’s comprehensive immigration framework and interferes with its ability to conduct foreign relations. The department asserts that the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, such as the landmark Arizona v. United States decision, clearly establish the federal government’s primacy in regulating the entry, presence, and status of noncitizens within the United States.

The DOJ’s principal argument is that HB 4156 creates a patchwork of state-level immigration schemes, which would impede the federal government’s ability to implement a cohesive and uniform national immigration policy. By allowing Oklahoma to independently determine the legal status of individuals within its borders and potentially exile them from the state, the law is seen as encroaching on the federal government’s exclusive domain.

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“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.”   

The state of Oklahoma, however, has staunchly defended the legality of HB 4156, with Attorney General Gentner Drummond dismissing the DOJ’s preemption argument as “dubious at best.”

Drummond contends that while the federal government holds broad authority over immigration, it does not have “exclusive power” on the subject.

Oklahoma’s position is that the state is exercising its “concurrent and complementary power” as a sovereign entity to address what it perceives as a “public crisis” within its borders.

The state argues that it is merely supplementing federal immigration laws with its own robust penalties, a move that it believes is entirely within its legal rights.

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The clash between Oklahoma and the DOJ is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is part of a larger trend of GOP-led states seeking to assert greater control over immigration enforcement, often in direct opposition to the federal government’s policies and priorities.

Similar laws have been passed in Texas and Iowa, with the DOJ filing lawsuits against both states in an effort to block their implementation. These legal battles underscore the growing tension between state and federal authorities over the role of local law enforcement in immigration matters.

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