Oklahoma City immigration attorney Sam Wargin Grimaldo speaks to a...

Oklahoma City immigration attorney Sam Wargin Grimaldo speaks to a group outside the Oklahoma Capitol on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, who opposed a bill that would impose criminal penalties to be in the state illegally. Oklahoma is one of several GOP-led states seeking to give broader immigration enforcement powers to local police. Credit: AP/Sean Murphy

OKLAHOMA CITY — The U.S. Department of Justice sued Oklahoma on Tuesday over a state law that seeks to impose criminal penalties on those living in the state illegally.

The lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City challenges an Oklahoma law that makes it a state crime — punishable by up to two years in prison — to live in the state without legal immigration status. Similar laws passed in Texas and Iowa already are facing challenges from the Justice Department. Oklahoma is among several GOP states jockeying to push deeper into immigration enforcement as both Republicans and Democrats seize on the issue. Other bills targeting migrants have been passed this year in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

The Justice Department says the Oklahoma law violates the U.S. Constitution and is asking the court to declare it invalid and bar the state from enforcing it.

“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said the bill was necessary because the Biden administration is failing to secure the nation’s borders.

“Not only that, but they stand in the way of states trying to protect their citizens,” Stitt said in a statement.

The federal action was expected, as the Department of Justice warned Oklahoma officials last week that the agency would sue unless the state agreed not to enforce the new law.

In response, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond called the DOJ’s preemption argument “dubious at best” and said that while the federal government has broad authority over immigration, it does not have “exclusive power” on the subject.

“Oklahoma is exercising its concurrent and complementary power as a sovereign state to address an ongoing public crisis within its borders through appropriate legislation,” Drummond wrote in a letter to the DOJ. “Put more bluntly, Oklahoma is cleaning up the Biden Administration’s mess through entirely legal means in its own backyard – and will resolutely continue to do so by supplementing federal prohibitions with robust state penalties.”

Texas was allowed to enforce a law similar to Oklahoma's for only a few confusing hours in March before it was put on hold by a federal appeals court’s three-judge panel. The panel heard arguments from both supporters and opponents in April, and will next issue a decision on the law’s constitutionality.

The Justice Department filed another lawsuit earlier this month seeking to block an Iowa law that would allow criminal charges to be brought against people who have outstanding deportation orders or who previously have been removed from or denied admission to the U.S.

The law in Oklahoma has prompted several large protests at the state Capitol that included immigrants and their families voicing concern that their loved ones will be racially profiled by police.

“We feel attacked,” said Sam Wargin Grimaldo, who attended a rally last month wearing a shirt that read, “Young, Latino and Proud.”

“People are afraid to step out of their houses if legislation like this is proposed and then passed,” he said.

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