The story of Tulsa’s immigrant population is big, complex, painful, messy and controversial.
Some are young Dreamers and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients brought to the United States when they were children.
Some are refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence.
Some are undocumented because they came into the country without authorization or they came in legally but have overstayed or violated their visas.
American immigration policies and prejudices have changed through history: anti-German, Irish, Chinese, Eastern European; pro-family reunification and skilled workers.
In September 2018, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced the New Tulsans Welcoming Plan, a plan to welcome and support new immigrants to the city.
Here, we present some individuals and organizations helping Tulsa’s undocumented people. They are lawyers and law students filing cases; they are volunteers who are feeding, protesting, sheltering and teaching. They see themselves standing for morality, humanity and legal rights, and they are all feeling the stress of the work.
The names of the immigrants they represent have been changed for privacy. And for safety.
Rosa Hernandez could be arrested for jaywalking and deported to Mexico. Or any legal infraction. That is because she is a Dreamer, brought to the United States from Tijuana at age 4. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was intended to provide a legal pathway to citizenship for such children.
It has been stuck in Congress since it was introduced in 2001.
“I went through a really hard time when I found out I was undocumented because I realized I couldn’t reach my dreams,” Hernandez says.
She is a Booker T. Washington High School graduate who now, at age 23, works at a public school where she speaks Spanish more often than English. She has temporary lawful status and work authorization under the 2012 DACA provision. Because of date and legal limits, not all Dreamers are DACA.
The young people in both categories typically keep their heads down and live under the radar.
Not Hernandez. She is careful, but she also is a fearless immigrant advocate who calls herself a freedom fighter.
“Speaking out on something so controversial, I’ve been spat on, cursed at and threatened,” she says. “I am not personally afraid. I have seen families torn apart because of a lack of a piece of paper. My biggest fear is losing my family.”
Hernandez is director of Dream Alliance Oklahoma-Tulsa, a youth-led immigrant support organization that partners with other organizations to help DACA recipients renew their costly $495 status applications every two years and helps keep Tulsa’s undocumented community informed of local and national immigration policies.
“We also advocate for undocumented people of all ages. Our parents were the original dreamers. They came here with a dream for us.” Approximately 7,000 DACA recipients live in Oklahoma, according to the American Immigration Council.
University of Tulsa Immigrant Rights Project
Robin Sherman gives her immigration law students heart-breaking assignments representing “the most vulnerable people in our society:” refugee and asylum seekers, and DACA recipients.
They met Antonio*, a DACA case, in the Immigrant Rights Project’s Know Your Rights jail program. He had been in the United States since age 2. When local police stopped a car full of teenage boys joyriding, the others might have been grounded. Antonio’s penalty was catastrophic.
He lost his DACA status and was deported to the Mexican border — where he had no relatives or friends — with only a backpack and a few possessions. His case was shattering for some of the TU law students.
Lorely Bracho, a Tulsan born in Venezuela, is a TU law student who has changed her mind about becoming a full-time immigration attorney.
“I learned how difficult immigrant cases are in the current climate. It can weigh you down.”
Since the Trump administration began tightening immigration policies in 2017, “the asylum system is almost impossible,” Sherman says.
Betsy McCormick, a 20-year immigration law veteran, sees the immigration climate worsening, and that is saying a lot.
She began TU’s Immigrant Rights Project in 2006, the same year the state legislature passed an anti-immigrant bill declaring, “Illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state.”
It was the same year the Tulsa County Sheriff’s office signed a 287(g) agreement with ICE to house detainees for a fee. ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Immigration laws present insurmountable obstacles to many non-citizens living in the U.S. trying to secure legal immigration status, according to McCormick. For example, the spouses, children, parents and siblings of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are, in many cases, prevented from remaining in the U.S. to apply for a green card. Instead, they must leave the U.S. and apply for their immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate in their home country.
However, when they leave the U.S. to apply for the visa, many of them will be legally barred from coming back to the U.S. for as long as 10 years. “It’s a real catch-22,” McCormick says.
The result is that non-citizens seeking to gain lawful status are faced with the choice of years-long separation from loved ones, including spouses and children who are U.S. citizens, or remaining in the U.S. without legal status to be with and help support and care for their family members.
Since more than 4 million U.S. citizen children live with a parent who is undocumented, McCormick says the problem is very real.
She and other advocates believe comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely or certainly far away.
“Even DACA, which we all thought was a sure thing, is under attack,” she says. “The current administration’s strategy wears down immigrants, immigrant families and advocates so that we’ll give up. It’s bleak, but we’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep fighting. I have lost hope, but I have not lost my fight.”
The nonprofit approach
Catie Coulter is a TU College of Law graduate who did go into immigration law, first in private practice and now at Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma, which since 1985 has served immigrants who can’t afford a private attorney. “I’ve always been on the humanitarian side of things,” she says.
There’s a lot of need in Tulsa. Last year Catholic Charities’ staff of five attorneys and two Department of Justice accredited representatives served nearly 900 clients. Most were cases for legal documentation for a family member or naturalization proceedings, but many were asylum cases, victims of violence and the subject of deportation/removal proceedings.
Sixty percent of the cases were from Mexico, but in the past 10 years, Catholic Charities represented people from 100 different countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, India, France, South Africa, Ukraine, Venezuela and as far flung as Iceland and China.
“Asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence and persecution are the most challenging problem right now,” Coulter says. “They arrive with nothing and suffer greatly. We work hard to advocate for them.”
An Indonesian widow scheduled for deportation, is a success story at Catholic Charities. She applied for a “U-visa,” a rare nonimmigrant visa designated for victims of certain kinds of crimes. She was robbed not once, but twice, at gunpoint in the Tulsa area, successfully assisted the police and her U-visa was given deferred action while her permanent application is pending.
“Sadly, the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) is so backed up, the wait time is now 10-15 years,” Coulter says. Only 10,000 U- visas are granted a year and in 2016 the backlog was 64,000 applications.
“It’s nerve-wracking to report a crime in the best of circumstances. The U-visa exists to protect the undocumented who bravely come forward to report a crime they were victims of or witness to,” Coulter says. “The prosecutions that result make our entire community safer.”
Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City provides a resettlement service for refugees who, according to the United Nations’ definition, have fled their country of origin and are being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
How does Coulter handle the stress of immigration law?
“My faith. My colleagues down the hall. And the community saying to us, ‘We care about what you’re doing.’”
The Immigrant and Refugee Services for YWCA Tulsa, another nonprofit, has served immigrants and refugees for more than 35 years. The YWCA hosts citizenship programs, provides legal services, organizes refugee and asylee assistance, and holds classes in language, high school equivalency and family literacy.
New immigration regulations slide in steadily. Stricter and shifting like quicksand, they make uphill work for immigration lawyers like Campbell Cooke, who has a caseload of 700. He was born in England, has lived in Tulsa since 1998 and has worked in China and South Africa, so he has gone through the immigration process himself.
The 2017 Buy American and Hire American executive order essentially “declared war” on work visas, he says. It was supposed to reduce immigration and preserve jobs for U. S. workers. Instead, he says, “It’s a monster” that misapplies the statute and regulations resulting in a large amount of federal court litigation. It also results in U.S. employers being unable to staff their businesses with the professionals that are needed, Cooke says.
Only 65,000 H-1B work visas for bachelor’s degree professionals and 20,000 H-1B work visas for master’s degree professionals are available every year, but with more than 200,000 applications, visas are issued by lottery. “How is an employer to run his business on a lottery?” Cooke asks.
Seasonal employees — in roofing, construction, land management — “are desperately needed,” but only 33,000 seasonal visas are issued every six months, and Oklahoma alone needs that many.
“The people who need to be here are not able to be here (legally),” Cooke says. “Employers can’t get employees. That also applies to employers that are unable to get needed unskilled or skilled labor that is not seasonal. If we think it’s bad now, wait until drought, crop failures and food shortages (occur) in Mexico and Central America,” making those countries uninhabitable.
ICE and Customs and Border Control are not the problem, Cooke says. “Based on my interaction over the years with the Immigration Agencies, I view ICE and Customs and Border Control as highly trained and highly professional agencies doing a thankless task they are not given the resources to do.”
Immigration lawyer Lorena Rivas, a first-generation Mexican-American, was raised in tiny Mutual, Oklahoma. She has been processing immigration cases for seven years (plus two more as a student at TU) but feels the weight of the current anti-immigration climate more than ever.
“It’s really hard to be an immigration attorney now, especially with deportation cases,” Rivas says. “There are very few happy endings.” Sometimes success means winning the client more time in this country to prepare to leave.”
Eighty percent of her clients are Spanish speaking from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Venezuela and other South American countries. The rest are from across the globe.
One client is Mariana*, a 35-year-old mother of three children who are each U.S. citizens. Her husband abandoned the family about a year or two before Mariana’s car was rear-ended in a traffic accident in south Tulsa.
Since she was not authorized to have a driver’s license, she was jailed locally, then transported by ICE to the detention center in Newkirk and scheduled for deportation.
She had entered the country as an asylum seeker 15 years ago and was unaware that an order for her removal had been issued, as Rivas says Mariana never received the hearing notice. Rivas is attempting to reopen the case, and Mariana has been released to care for her children while the case is pending, which could take a decade or more.
“ICE is always present but more active now,” Rivas says. “This is a low point in American history.” The immigration system is broken, she says, “but taking hardline stances create more problems.” She does not see a happier day soon.
The stress is tremendous, she says, so why does she do this work? “I ask myself that, especially recently. But if I were to quit, there would be one less person on the front line. The unrepresented people in immigration court have a higher deportation rate. I would feel bad not helping them. I consider (myself) a public defender.”
New Sanctuary Network
In December, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a public letter of welcome to refugees. That was a pleasant surprise to many of Tulsa’s immigrant advocates, especially volunteers of the New Sanctuary Network.
New Sanctuary Network Tulsa holds — rain-or-shine — Friday noon protests for 15 minutes outside Tulsa’s David L. Moss Criminal Justice where ICE detainees are held. The purpose of the protests is “to speak up against the hateful rhetoric demonizing immigrants,” says Linda Allegro, a political science professor. As the New Sanctuary project director, she is described by several as a passionate “fireball” of advocacy.
New Sanctuary Network was formed in early 2017 by four faith groups: B’nai Emunah (Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman), All Souls Unitarian Church (Executive Minister Rev. Barbara Prose), Communidad de Esperanza (Community of Hope led by Pastor Alvaro Nova) and Fellowship Congregational Church (Rev. Chris Moore).
Publicly, New Sanctuary Network is “committed to stopping the wholesale deportations of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees,” Prose says. Some consider deportation for minor offenses (a broken taillight, running a red light) entrapment, and they see the county’s 287(g) detainment contract with ICE a morally corrupt money-maker for the jail.
More quietly, individuals of the group feed, support and shelter asylum seekers and other undocumented people.
“We are advocates doing day-to-day, Good Samaritan stuff,” Allegro says. They bring their individual skills and compassion to the work. New Network has a bilingual hotline (918-720-9224) for people in crisis. Volunteers from B’nai Emunah help Catholic Charities’ immigrant lawyers by doing routine office work.
Chris Shoaf, a downtown nightclub manager and legislative advocate with the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, is New Sanctuary’s statistician. He documents the number of immigrant arrests and incarcerations at the Tulsa County Jail.
In a one-year period 2018-2019, he counted 295 detained under 287(g), each averaging a two-month stay. DUI is the No. 1 charge; drug charges after that.
When Pastor Nova asked for someone to give lodging to detainee Pablo*, a Cuba asylum seeker with no family or friends in the area, Erv Janssen M.D. from Fellowship Lutheran Church provided his spare bedroom for 15 months. Pablo arrived with the clothes he was wearing and shoes, but no shoelaces. He doesn’t speak English, and Janssen doesn’t speak Spanish, so they relied on Google Translate to communicate.
Janssen, a retired psychiatrist, surmised that Pablo was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The bus transporting him and 80 other shackled asylees drove off the road and blew a tire en route to Tulsa.
His several months of incarceration at the county jail, including 36 hours held naked in a glass cell for medical observation, were “frightening and dehumanizing,” Pablo says through an interpreter. “Until the day I die, I will never forget that experience.” He is now living with friends, gradually healing and waiting for his asylum application to be processed, which could take a decade or more.
Is the immigration legal morass fixable? Yes, but many say only Congress or the White House can resolve it. Most immigrant advocates say it will require a change in administration.
Until then Janssen says, “The question is, ‘How do you help what seems to be an almost impossible situation?’ What it comes down to is, one at a time.”
Denni Blum taught a class in immigration and education at Oklahoma State University last fall and assigned her graduate students to interview someone related to immigration and migration issues. The 40-year-old student who interviewed Pablo is an immigrant himself and after the interview, the student told Blum it was the first time he ever cried with a stranger. Blum later replied to the class, “We should cry with strangers.”
Inspired to help?
Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma, 2450 N. Harvard Ave., seeks volunteers, pro bono lawyers and financial donations (specify immigrant legal services or refugee resettlement). Visit cceok.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dream Alliance Oklahoma-Tulsa is based at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, 621 E. Fourth St. You can support DAOK-Tulsa for $5-$25 at okeq.org.
The Immigrant Rights Project is housed at the University of Tulsa College of Law, 800 S. Tucker Drive. Donations can be made at utulsa.edu/university-advancement-alumni-engagement.
For New Sanctuary Network, contact the faith groups directly: B’nai Emunah, All Souls Unitarian Church, Communidad de Esperanza at Fellowship Lutheran Church or Fellowship Congregational Church.