November 15, 2010
Such nationwide fears might indicate the United States is not ready to reform its immigration laws. But if anything, Oklahoma’s voters have signaled how urgently we need comprehensive immigration reform.
Grace Meng, US program researcher at Human Rights Watch

Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment on Nov. 2 that forbids judges from taking Sharia law and international law into consideration when making decisions. A federal judge has already blocked it from taking effect.

But this doesn’t address what motivated the vote: a growing fear of immigrants and foreigners. Oklahomans’ fear that they are under threat was palpable — the initiative was known as the “Save our State” amendment.

Two other initiatives also passed that day — one making English the required language for all “official actions,” the other that all voters must show a photo ID.

This English-only measure, said Rep. George Fraught, would help immigrants assimilate into the U.S. culture and economy — implying that immigrants are not learning English now. The voter identification law was motivated by fears that undocumented immigrants, who are not entitled to vote, were flocking to polls and fraudulently casting ballots.

None of these threats are real.

No one is imposing Sharia law in the courts of Oklahoma — or anywhere else in the nation. Any effort to do so is barred by the Constitution’s separation of church and state. As for “international law,” the only international law that becomes U.S. law is in the treaties that the Senate ratifies.

Meanwhile, studies show that Latino immigrants are learning English and assimilating at the same rates as the immigrants who came from Western Europe in the early 1900s. Allegations of voter fraud committed by immigrants are rarely proved true.

Yet Texas is now clamoring to pass similar laws. And politicians like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has pushed for an electrified fence along the Mexico-U.S. border, are poised to take over powerful positions on House committees that cover immigration policy.

Such nationwide fears might indicate the United States is not ready to reform its immigration laws. But if anything, Oklahoma’s voters have signaled how urgently we need comprehensive immigration reform.

Many aspects of U.S. immigration law make it harder to assimilate, and so help perpetuate these fears about immigration. Backlogs keep spouses and children of U.S. citizens and spouses waiting for 10 to 20 years to be reunited with their families. Many try to enter unlawfully — causing more families to live in the shadows.

Sweeping deportation actions then tear many of these families apart. Children brought to the United States without status by their parents often end up speaking English just like U.S. citizens — but have no hope of gaining lawful status and becoming citizens of the only country they know.

Undocumented workers now raise children, build houses and grow a lot of the food for U.S. citizens. But they are reluctant to report workplace violations — making them vulnerable to exploitation.

Oklahoma’s voters are not completely wrong: American values are incompatible with the presence of a large, disenfranchised population of people with limited rights.

It’s time for politicians to address the real problems — rather than cater to fears and make unnecessary, expensive changes at the fringes of the real problem.

Comprehensive immigration reform should include a path to legalization for the more than 12 million estimated undocumented immigrants, which would protect workers’ rights, keep families together and uphold the American values of democracy and diversity.

Though Oklahoma voters might be surprised to hear it, such immigration reform would not only uphold U.S. values and our Constitution — it would be in keeping with the same international human rights laws they rejected at the ballot box.

Grace Meng is a researcher for the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.