OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Former Republican officials in Oklahoma joined a coalition of business groups from across the country on Wednesday in urging Congress to pass new immigration laws they say are vital to the nation's economy — even while acknowledging the political difficulty the issue presents.
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and ex-House Speaker Kris Steele were among those who decried the current immigration system as woefully inadequate and pointed to the massive influx of children from Central American countries as evidence of the need for immediate congressional action.
More than 1,000 unaccompanied teenagers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are being detained at a facility in Fort Sill in southwest Oklahoma after being caught trying to enter the country illegally.
Keating, a two-term governor in Oklahoma until 2003 and now president of the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C., said he believes the crisis involving an estimated 57,000 children picked up at the U.S.-Mexico border since October could serve as the impetus for meaningful legislation this year.
"The reality is that this children's invasion probably will do more to bring the parties together at a crucial time to fix the system," Keating said on a conference call as part of a push for immigration reform involving 25 states that's sponsored by a coalition of manufacturing, farming and business groups.
Among the group's goals are increasing opportunities for immigrants to enter the U.S. workforce and for foreign students to remain in the country to work. The coalition also wants to streamline the process for employers to hire immigrant workers and to establish a path to legal status for those workers who are currently living in the country.
Craig Parker, an executive with Moore-based Silver Star Construction, said the company has about 50 immigrants on its 175-employee workforce. The company could easily expand if he could find more workers to fill as many as two dozen construction jobs that start with a $13-an-hour salary, Parker said.
"The problem is the worker shortage at this time in Oklahoma in our industry is drastic," Parker said. "It's holding us back from growing our company. It's holding other companies back from growing their companies. It's stifling the economy."
The nationwide push for immigration reform comes one day after President Barack Obama appealed to Congress to give him $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the growing number of children coming across the border, which has sparked fierce debate on Capitol Hill and beyond.
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, the GOP nominee for Oklahoma's open U.S. Senate seat, said Wednesday the Republican-controlled House's response has been "fairly tepid."
"The proposal the president has put on the table isn't about solving the crisis at the border," Lankford said. "It's managing the crisis at the border. This is a problem that needs to be solved and not managed."