Disavowed report of National Guard involvement in immigration enforcement elevates worries
Earlier this month, a man walked into the Rev. Nathan Hedge's south Oklahoma City church with a concerned look.
The man, an immigrant from South America, had come looking for help renewing his wife's green card. Hedge, senior pastor of May Avenue Wesleyan Church, offered to lend him a hand. Hedge's church operates an immigration ministry, Immigrant Connection, through which it offers legal assistance to immigrants — just the kind of help the man was looking for.
The man told Hedge that he and his wife wanted to go back to their home country in South America to visit family, but were concerned they wouldn't be allowed back into the United States, even with proper documentation. The man and his wife have lived legally in the U.S. for decades, he said, but they were still concerned.
“Even those that are here legally are becoming scared with what they're seeing," he said.
That couple wasn't alone in their fear, Hedge said. Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, many of the ministry's clients have expressed the same worries about the direction the nation is taking.
On Friday, The Associated Press published a report saying the Trump administration had considered mobilizing 100,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen to conduct immigration raids in several states, including in Oklahoma.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer quickly denied the report, writing on Twitter that the revelation is "100% false."
An Oklahoma National Guard spokeswoman said Friday morning that the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., was aware of the report, but that the Oklahoma National Guard hadn't been contacted about any possible activation.
A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said Friday that the governor hadn't seen the memo.
Whether true or not, reports like those have troubled the state's immigrant community and advocates who work with them.
Hedge said he was concerned when he saw the story. If Oklahoma National Guard soldiers were used to enforce immigration law, Hedge worries it would contribute to a climate of fear that he says has grown since Trump took office.
“I understand that there must be the rule of law," Hedge said. "But we also need to temper that with some compassion.”
The report cites a draft memo signed by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, and posted online Friday by a number of media outlets, including The Associated Press.
The memo, addressed to the then-acting heads of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, would have served as guidance to implement the wide-ranging executive order on immigration and border security that President Donald Trump signed Jan. 25. Such memos are routinely issued to supplement executive orders.
Also dated Jan. 25, the draft memo says participating troops would be authorized "to perform the functions of an immigration officer in relation to the investigation, apprehension and detention of aliens in the United States." It describes how the troops would be activated under a revived state-federal partnership program, and states that personnel would be authorized to conduct searches and identify and arrest any unauthorized immigrants.
The final decision on whether a state's National Guard would participate in the program would lie with that state's governor. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limits the president's authority to use the military to enforce laws within the United States. But that restriction doesn't apply to the National Guard when it serves under the authority of a state's governor.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said his organization would "put every option on the table" for challenging such a program if it were enacted.
“The idea of American military soldiers roaming through American neighborhoods, ripping people out of their homes and away from their families, is as frightening as it is unsettling," Kiesel said.
Although White House and Homeland Security officials denied the report, Kiesel said recent actions like Trump's executive order barring immigration from certain countries have been enough to give pause to immigrants in Oklahoma. Rumors that might once have seemed ludicrous or far-fetched seem more plausible now, he said.
“The actions that we've seen coming out of this current administration give rumors like this greater gravity," he said.
Arlita Harris, a state volunteer church mobilizer for the nonprofit Evangelical Immigration Table, said she thought the plan seemed inhumane.
About 11.1 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States in 2014, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center. Many of those people have been living and working in the country for years, Harris said. Deporting all of those people would cause major fallout in the national economy, she said.
Many of those people also have children who were born in the United States, making them American citizens, Harris said.
“Rounding up people and getting them out of the United States would leave children who have no parents to care for them," Harris said. "You can't just pull 11 or 12 million people out of a nation and not have it be noticed.”