Citing billion-dollar losses in agriculture labor shortages, a group of current and past Oklahoma Republican leaders has asked the state’s congressional delegation to support approval of immigration reform.
A letter sent Tuesday includes 13 signatures including former Gov. Frank Keating, former Tulsa state Rep. Ron Peters and former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele.
Keating said he comes at the issue from an enforcement perspective. Before becoming governor, he served as the third highest-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Justice overseeing the immigration service, U.S. Marshals, U.S. attorneys, the Secret Service and the nation’s role in Interpol.
He said the 1986 immigration act that former President Ronald Reagan supported fell short of addressing the long-term effect of border control. About 3 million undocumented immigrants gained legal residency through the act, which did not include any enforcement or security measures.
“To say the status quo is working is not recognizing how dangerous and porous our borders have become,” Keating said.
“We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We need to take care of the 11 million (undocumented immigrants) here now and expel the ones with criminal records.
“And we need to make sure to stop the continuation of people coming across the border, like what happened in the ’86 act.”
The letter is written under the letterhead for the Partnership for a New American Economy, which is a bipartisan group led by chairmen including Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Keating wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in November calling for immigration reform based on economic and security grounds.
He met with President Barack Obama about three weeks ago with other Republican governors including former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Michigan Gov. John Engler.
Immigration dominated the dinner conversation, Keating said.
“The president asked why there was an unwillingness to really get this done,” Keating said. “I told him people are concerned you would decide enforcement would not be important right now and you would focus on regularizing the immigrants here. The U.S. House is not going to support that.”
Under the Obama administration, there have been 1.8 million deportations. At this pace, he is expected to have more deportations during his presidency than any other.
Through executive orders and administrative memos, Obama has shifted the priorities to prosecuting criminal immigrants and giving reprieve from deportation to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country years ago as children.
A recent surge of Central American children and teenagers arriving at the border alone during the past year has reawakened the immigration policy debate.
Faced with a stalemate in Congress, Obama said he will continue to make changes in immigration policy and plans to shift attention away from the nation’s interior to the border.
Obama has been pushing for a comprehensive immigration package from Congress. While the Senate passed a bill, House Speaker John Boehner says the House will not vote on immigration reform this year.
Keating said there is a distrust of Obama in the House Republican caucus, citing presidential changes made to the Affordable Care Act.
He told the president an option would be to include language in the bill that would prevent any executive change or alterations. Obama indicated he would consider it, Keating said.
“I was surprised the president wanted to sit and talk with former Republican governors about this,” Keating said. “There is a willingness there.”
The letter to the Oklahoma congressional delegation states the immigration “system is broken for the business owners who are unable to grow their businesses due to workforce shortages.”
It states the shortage in the agriculture industry is causing a loss of more than $3 billion in the gross domestic product and more than $1 billion loss in farm income.
“Not only can we no longer economically afford to wait, but there is also broad support, including Republican voters, for fixing the broken U.S. Immigration System,” the letter states.