OKLAHOMA CITY – Former Republican Speaker of the House Kris Steele has endorsed comprehensive immigration reform, while not choosing sides
on every question in the scorching public policy debate consuming Congress and much of the nation.
In a recent interview with CapitolBeatOK, Steele explained his motivation for joining diverse Oklahomans advocating a change in national policy.
Steele led a bi-partisan group of business and faith community leaders who came together at the Oklahoma state Capitol for a press conference the week before last. Steele said he has visited this spring with national leaders in Washington, D.C., and with members of the state congressional delegation, to express his support for less punitive and restrictive immigration strictures.
At that event, Rev. Lori Walke of Mayflower Congregational Church, delivered an emotional speech combining economics and morality as she made the case for new immigration processes. Walke pointed to thousands of undocumented children from Central America pouring into the country, saying the country is “neck-deep in a crisis.”
Walke said, “Either all of us matter or none of us do.” She encouraged Christians to think of “the Golden Rule” when immigration policy is addressed.
Steele, who moderated the immigration event, humorously asked if there should be an altar call after Walkes comments.
The event was part of a nationwide effort in 25 states and 60 congressional districts at which business leaders and others called both for border security and new policies and procedures.
Matt Ball of CMA Strategies, a public relations firm in Oklahoma City, organized the recent Capitol press conference.
In his interview with CapitolBeatOK, Speaker Steele said, “America’s economy would benefit from meaningful immigration reform. Both for unskilled and highly skilled labor, our economy should utilize the human capital immigration can provide. For example, in Oklahoma, we have the oldest average age for primary care physicians in the nation.
“Even with expanded residencies, we are not going to be able to provide the health care needed without allowing foreign-born, American-educated, doctors to practice. We educate thousands in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, yet we won’t allow them to use those talents and skills here. And, we are aware of the demands for labor when it comes to roofing, home-building and other trades necessary for our state’s growth.”
The press conference Steele moderated brought forth business leaders such as Robert Ross (Interurban Restaurants), Craig Parker (Silver Star Construction), and Jake Fisher (Bridges Advertising).
Other participants, besides Walke, included Oklahoma City Council member David Greenwell and Douglas Stump, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Parker, who said he employs around 20 workers holding valid green cards, contended there is in Oklahoma a drastic lack of workers for available jobs. The status quo, he said, “is affecting our economy.” Reform along the lines Steele and others have suggested would “improve the economy and help the American workforce.”
Greenwell characterized reform as “a nonpartisan issue.” He said some means to allow qualified and needed workers to stay in the country could boost “payroll taxes and sales tax revenues,” for starters.
“We are losing high-paying jobs in engineering and technical areas because the workforce infrastructure is not here. We are educating the world's workforce of tomorrow, and then forcing these highly educated people to take their futures and economic benefit to other parts of the world,” Steele said in last week’s interview.
At the press event, Ball released polling data from the Partnership for a New American Economy. Among other findings, that survey found that the proportion of Americans who believe the U.S. immigration system needs fixing “does not dip below 84 percent in any region.”
While many Americans believe President Barack Obama is not enforcing existing immigration laws, 72 percent rejected contentions that that means immigration reforms should be stymied.
In the survey, conducted by HarperPolling of Pennsylvania, voters appeared to bracket both sides of current immigration arguments. For example, 54 percent of Republicans supported proposals from House Speaker John Boehner to secure the southern border, expand visas for high-skilled and farm workers, require employer verification, allow young persons brought to the U.S. illegally by parents to earn citizenship, and permit visas for otherwise law-abiding undocumented workers.
On the flip side, two-thirds in the survey (including a majority of Republicans) supported creation of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Oklahoma-specific results were similar to the national survey findings.
In follow-up to the press briefing, Steele concluded his exchange with this writer, saying, “An honest evaluation indicates our current system operates on fear: fear of someone different, fear of the unknown and fear that opportunity to better one’s life will be taken away.
“It is time for Congress to solve this problem. Congress must pass a law that protects our border, allows immigrants to add to our economy and recognizes the human dignity of all people.”