Oklahoma Watch reporters provide deeper insight into their recent or upcoming stories: Lionel Ramos about the legal complications faced by Afghan refugees in Oklahoma; Keaton Ross about his investigation into substandard health conditions in Oklahoma jails; Trevor Brown about a package of bills designed to make it harder for the public to put a state question on the ballot. Ted Streuli hosts.
The Clock is Ticking for Afghan Refugees
Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I’m Ted Streuli, the executive director at Oklahoma Watch. We’re a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories. In this segment, I’m talking to Lionel Ramos who covers race and equity at Oklahoma Watch. Most of the Afghans recently settled in the United States, and specifically in Oklahoma, arrived under a humanitarian parole designation rather than by winning asylum or acquiring special immigrant visas. Lionel’s working on a story that explores what that means for Afghans trying to make a new life in our state. Lionel, what is humanitarian parole?
Lionel Ramos: It’s more easily defined by what it’s not. Humanitarian parole is not a pathway to citizenship. It’s a temporary authorization to legally be in the United States for one or two years and is usually reserved for situations in which a person or a family didn’t have the opportunity to go through the proper asylum-seeking channels provided by the U.S. government.
Ted Streuli: What do you mean when you say proper asylum-seeking channels?
Lionel Ramos: Afghans have two main ways of entering the United States as people seeking refuge. There is the asylum process, which is conducted by the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program and is the same one that a person from any other country would use if they feared persecution. For example, some people in Ukraine might use that avenue. There is also the special immigrant visa program, which is specifically designed to allow Afghans who have helped advance U.S. interests in their country and are seeking refuge in our country. It’ll enable them to apply and get on a footing where they can have permanent residency. The important thing about both of these pathways — asylum and special immigrant visas — are that they lead to permanent residency for the displaced, which humanitarian parole is not.
Ted Streuli: What are the options for Afghans who have already landed in the U.S. and they’re trying to rebuild their lives in Oklahoma or similar places?
Lionel Ramos: There aren’t many. Because of humanitarian parole, most of the Afghans who have come here will have to apply for asylum, or if they worked for the U.S. or Afghan governments in any capacity, special immigrant visas while they’re living here trying to navigate the adjustment. Those processes normally start in the countries they’re trying to leave or in a neighboring country and they take years. The problem immigration attorneys have identified is that backlogs for asylum services are in the millions and only about 36,000 of the 76,000 evacuated Afghans qualify for special immigrant visas, which has its own backlog. These take multiple years and Afghan refugees don’t really have that much time.
Ted Streuli: Do we know of anyone specifically facing that kind of uncertainty?
Lionel Ramos: We do. I have connected with two Afghan individuals living in Oklahoma right now who face these exact complications. One gentleman worked for the U.S. and Afghan governments and has a special immigrant visa application pending. The other has no connections to the government and decided to flee Afghanistan with his remaining family after the death of his father. Both are on humanitarian parole. But one started his process and needs an attorney to help him navigate. He’s 40, has a Ph.D., speaks perfect English. His prospects look pretty good far as immigration goes. The other, a young man who just turned 20, has a high school education, says he taught himself English on YouTube and doesn’t really know where to start in his asylum process.
Ted Streuli: What’s being done to help those folks navigate their status adjustments or is there anything at all being done?
Lionel Ramos: There’s work being done on a couple of different levels. The most immediate work is obviously being done locally. Catholic Charities is in charge of refugee resettlement as a whole. And I understand the organization is working with nonprofits in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to provide legal services for refugees. At the national level, organizations like the International Refugee Assistance project are working with Congress and the (Biden) administration to pass what they’re tentatively calling the Afghan Adjustment Act. Really, it’s a push for a bill, any bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for evacuated Afghans.
Ted Streuli: Is there something like that? Is it likely to pass through Congress?
Lionel Ramos: It’s hard to say. Congresspeople have been relatively quiet about the Afghan refugee resettlement operation since it began and even more so now that there is war in Ukraine, which has already displaced millions since it began a month ago. We don’t yet know if Oklahoma will be receiving refugees from that conflict. But what we do know is that there were laws passed and expedited permanent residency for people from Cuba in 1966, Southeast Asia in the 1970s and Iraq after 2008, so it’s not out of the question. I have yet to speak to members of our own congressional delegation to find out what they think of the whole situation though.
Dangerous Conditions In Oklahoma Jails
Ted Streuli: In this segment, I’m talking to Keaton Ross, who covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. He’s been combing through jail inspection reports and found that dozens of facilities struggle to meet state health and safety standards. Keaton, what laws do local jails have to comply with in that regard?
Keaton Ross: There are dozens of state laws that seek to establish a minimum standard of living in jail facilities. For example, every person detained in jail is supposed to have a minimum out of living space, hot water and eat from a dietitian-approved menu. Those are just a few of the rules.
Ted Streuli: Who enforces those standards?
Keaton Ross: The Oklahoma State Department of Health has a jail inspection division that is tasked with going to each jail in the state at least once per year and doing a surprise health inspection.
Ted Streuli: And are those are those reports pretty easy to get to?
Keaton Ross: They are public records, but they’re not posted anywhere online that’s easily accessible to go look at if you’re just an average member of the public. I submitted a public records request for every inspection report conducted in the state in 2020, and that took several months to fulfill. I just got it last month, so probably wouldn’t describe it as super easy to get. Maybe one (report) would be, but getting several was a little bit of a challenge.
Ted Streuli: Going through those inspection reports, what were the most common violations you saw?
Keaton Ross: The most common violation was fire alarm and smoke detection issues. I think maybe a third of jails were cited for those sorts of issues. And then around a dozen jails were cited for cleanliness issues. In some jails, there were overflowing toilets or stagnant water, insects in the kitchen or in common areas, just overall unsanitary conditions. And then there were also some safety concerns, standard-of-living concerns, folks not having enough living space or access to showers, those sorts of things.
Ted Streuli: You mentioned the smoke and fire detection equipment. What kind of problems did you see there? Was there no equipment at all? Was it not working? Was it not enough of it?
Keaton Ross: In a few instances there was no equipment at all or it just simply wasn’t working. In other instances, it hadn’t been inspected recently or there was an error code or something where they had a system. It just wasn’t functioning properly. There are certainly levels to that particular violation.
Ted Streuli: If a jail fails an inspection, what does it take to get back in good standing with the state?
Keaton Ross: They have 60 days after the health department delivers the report to correct those issues. If they are corrected after 60 days, by law the health department may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office or the local district attorney. In reality, that’s pretty rare. Usually, it’s a situation where the health department is trying to help them improve the conditions and get into compliance over time. And they’re not going to immediately file a complaint or impose fines.
Ted Streuli: What kind of obstacles does jail administration face when they’re trying to meet those standards or improve the conditions?
Keaton Ross: Often times it just comes down to funding. Research has shown and anecdotal stories around the state have shown if you’re in a rural county, you may not have the same funding coming in that an urban county has to make improvements or pay people more. So that can make it difficult to tackle those infrastructure issues that have been lingering. It just essentially comes down to money.
Ted Streuli: Are any of our legislators looking at that problem of subpar jail conditions.
Keaton Ross: In many ways, this is a local issue, local county governments, local funding. But state lawmakers have shown an interest in this issue. In September there was an interim study on prison and jail conditions. And then this session — not directly related to like bugs and jails and dirty conditions and that sort of thing — there is a bill that’s passed the House that would allocate funds that were saved from incarcerating fewer people with State Question 780 and put those towards local diversion programs and mental health programs. The legislature was supposed to do that years ago but had difficulty calculating how much money they should be allocated to these local governments.
Ted Streuli: What’s the status of that bill now?
Keaton Ross: It’s in the Senate, eligible to be heard. We’ll know more in the next couple of weeks whether that’ll go to the governor’s desk.
State Questions in Oklahoma At Risk
Ted Streuli: In this segment of Long Story Short I’m with reporter Trevor Brown, who’s been covering a package of election bills that are working their way through the Legislature, including a few proposals that would make it harder for state questions to get on the ballot. Trevor, what’s the latest on that?
Trevor Brown: Last week four bills passed in the House. These all deal with our state question process and they all would make it harder to get on the ballot or to get a state question passed. One of these bills would require constitutional changes to receive 55% of the vote on election day, instead of 50%. Another bill would require ballot collectors to gather signatures in all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, instead of just getting a statewide total, which is the current rule.
Ted Streuli: We talk in this package of bills about the legislature potentially making it harder for Oklahoma residents to get something on the ballot. How easy is it to do that now?
Trevor Brown: It’s a pretty steep burden already to get a statutory state question on the ballot. You need 8% of the number of votes for the last governor. That means it’s about 96,000 (signatures) and these have to be registered voters throughout the state. Constitutional change requires almost double that amount, and all this has to be done in a 90-day window, which not a lot of groups have been able to do in the last decade or so.
Ted Streuli: That makes it expensive, doesn’t it? You have to pay a lot of signature collectors. There’s no way you can do that with a couple of people, so it’s a costly process to meet those requirements, isn’t it?
Trevor Brown: There’s been a few state questions that have been put on the ballot just through the pure grassroots volunteer, but most campaigns in recent years have gotten on the ballot (using paid signature) collectors. I talked with a person from the American Civil Liberties Union. They helped with some of the criminal justice state questions in the past couple of years. They had hundreds of volunteers and paid (signature) collectors out there. They said, that’s the only way they could have met the requirements
Ted Streuli: To get that many signatures and that smaller window?
Trevor Brown: That’s tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ted Streuli: What are advocates and groups that have pushed initiatives saying about this?
Trevor Brown: They’re saying if this set of bills takes effect this effectively will kill citizen-led petitions in Oklahoma outside of groups that are very well funded, very well organized. Most grassroots campaigns wouldn’t have a chance to make it under these new requirements. As we said, the current requirements are already stringent.
Ted Streuli: What’s motivating lawmakers to make it harder for Oklahoma residents to get something on the ballot?
Trevor Brown: Another thing that opponents — and these are advocates, Democrats — are arguing is that this is retribution for some of the state questions that have passed in recent years. Specifically, they mentioned Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and some of these criminal justice reforms. Some of these proposals weren’t too popular in the State Capitol among the governor and some people in Republican leadership. They don’t like what happened in the past. They want to stop it in the future. Some lawmakers during the debate and in my interviews with them said this is part of the whole urban, rural divide that Oklahoma’s kind of struggling with. A lot of rural lawmakers are pushing for this because they say Tulsa and Oklahoma counties have so many people that they can vote and pass whatever policy, even though people in the Western or Eastern parts of the state may not feel the same.
Ted Streuli: Just to be clear, these are petitions that in order to get on the ballot require 8% or so of the number of people who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election. These are measures that by that process, Oklahomans want to have an opportunity to vote on. And in a couple of those recent (questions), you mentioned —medical marijuana, some of the criminal justice reform issues, Medicaid expansion — the vote is by everyone in Oklahoma and a majority of voters passed those propositions. Yet we have some lawmakers who don’t like them and want to make it harder for the people of Oklahoma to be able to do that?
Trevor Brown: It kind of goes down to the power struggle. Should the legislature have it? Should the people have it? Oklahoma has a long history of having these initiative petitions. We have a whole populist background in our state. Obviously, there’s a push and pull with the legislature. They want to have a say. They’re elected, sent to the Capitol to make these decisions. But we also have a form of direct democracy. And those two pathways are kind of competing at times.
Ted Streuli: You mentioned that Oklahoma has a long history of that sort of direct democracy. How does our system compare to other states? Are people able to get citizen-led initiatives onto the ballot elsewhere?
Trevor Brown: I did a good amount of research for this upcoming story where I compared Oklahoma to other states. Only about half the country has an initiative petition process at all. So Oklahoma is one of 24 or 25 states that even allow this process. Of all those states, Oklahoma has some of the strangest rules already — things like the 90-day period for collecting signatures. Some other states allow months, some almost a year. I discovered there are a few states with geographical requirements. They need to get so many signatures in X number of counties. I didn’t find any states with the type of proposal that the Legislature is looking at that would require every county and at this amount. So it looks like if this went through, we would have easily one of the hardest ballot initiatives just to get on the ballot.
Ted Streuli: So why are those legislators pushing for this? This seems to be the kind of process that defines government of the people and by the people. So why would anybody be opposed to that process?
Trevor Brown: Another concern some of the lawmakers bringing this have is they have discovered that people in their communities are not aware of the state questions and their ramifications by election day. They make the claim that having the signature collectors there in Woodward County, in the panhandle, in the Eastern part of the state, there would be people talking about these issues months before election day. People have said that (argument) doesn’t hold too much water. You could find out information online in their local newspapers or even through their lawmakers through constituent services.
Ted Streuli: The legislature can also send measures to a vote of the people themselves. How would they be affected by this package of bills?
Trevor Brown: The bill that would require 55% for constitutional amendments. That would also apply to anything the Legislature sets on the ballot. So the Legislature can send a proposal to the vote of the people just by a simple majority. The ironic twist of all this is that if these proposals do get past the Legislature this year, they’ll be put on the ballot under the current rules, not these new, more stringent rules.
Ted Streuli: How close was the vote on some of those proposals in the House and what do they face in the Senate?
Trevor Brown: The votes weren’t very close at all. It was almost entirely a party-line vote with Democrats, opposing it, Republicans supporting it. The proposal that would require sign collectors to go to all 77 counties and get X amount of signatures, that passed with about four or five Republicans who joined Democrats in opposition. Most of those Republicans were ones that represent urban districts, which is a kind of interesting take that maybe this is not so much of a Republican versus Democrat issue. Is it an urban versus rural representation issue? Senate leaders haven’t really talked about this bill, but given the vote in the house, it would seem that there would be a good deal of support if it gets on the Senate floor. All of these decisions are up to legislative leaders. We have something like about 1,000-plus bills still live and two months left. So it’s kind of up in there if they’ll see this as a priority.
Ted Streuli: You mentioned that even if the bill passes the Legislature it doesn’t just go to the governor and become law. What else has to happen?
Trevor Brown: This would be put on the ballot. It would likely be on (for) the upcoming primary or general election. It’s kind of interesting to be asking voters to take power away from themselves, which would be surprising if they did that. The people I talked to said they’re very concerned that lawmakers are going to keep bringing up this message that “we don’t want Oklahoma County and Tulsa County to decide our policies alone.” So there could be some support in the rural parts of the state for this type of proposal.
Ted Streuli: You’ve already published some work on this. What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
Trevor Brown: I got a few emails and calls from individuals and groups. Almost unanimously, people are not happy with this. Any time you try to take away power from the people or shift power dynamics, people are going to be upset with that. I mentioned this in my newsletter and they’re not happy about it. They are afraid this could effectively spell an end to the state’s initiative petition process altogether.
Ted Streuli: There’s another bill that would add some additional hurdles for state questions that include some kind of cost. What can you tell us about that one?
Trevor Brown: This one’s not garnering as much attention. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that requires state questions to include a fiscal impact if there are costs involved. This new proposal would require the state auditor to do (that assessment) themselves. This has prompted some concerns. The state auditor is obviously an elected political position, and having that person decide what a state question may cost could be problematic. As we saw with Medicaid expansion, the governor and a lot of Republicans said this would cost a lot more than it actually has. It hasn’t cost the state anything, at least this year. So this would definitely make state questions a little bit more politically charged.