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Congressman and school official discuss need for immigration fixes

U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, met with constituents following a forum on immigration on August 8. [Photo by Ben Felder, The Oklahoman]

U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, met with constituents following a forum on immigration on August 8. [Photo by Ben Felder, The Oklahoman]

A congressman and a local public school official both took part in a Wednesday forum on immigration, each representing ends of the spectrum on an issue that remains a political quagmire.

“A lot of kids are coming to schools with a large amount of trauma and anxiety because they are worried they aren't going to see their parents again,” said Rebecca Kaye, chief of staff for Oklahoma City Public Schools, speaking to the fears some students have that their parents may be deported.

The presidency of Donald Trump and his administration's hard-lined policies on immigration have increased concerns among some of the district's Hispanic students, which account for more than half the district's enrollment, Kaye said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma City said much of the rhetoric on immigration is misinformed and lacks an accurate understanding of reality.

The Republican congressman has often bucked his party's tone on immigration, rejecting merit-based immigration proposals and supporting a more moderate approach than those backed by the most conservative members of Congress.

“We can find the middle ground,” Russell said during a Wednesday forum on immigration hosted by Oklahoma, a coalition of business leaders lobbying for immigration reform and the continuation of DACA. The national nonprofit was founded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

Russell said a massive immigration reform effort would likely fail, but he expressed optimism in a package that included enhanced border security and a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers certain protections and employment access to those illegally brought to the United States as minors.

“When we talk about DACA ... that's fixable,” Russell said.

The Trump administration had set an expiration date for DACA that has passed, but multiple court decisions have kept the program in place.

Russell said a bill that includes $25 billion in funding for a border wall, along with a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, could get enough votes on the floor.

Legislation with those elements failed earlier this year, but Russell said he supports bringing them back.

“Most Americans agree that we need to secure the border. Most Americans agree we need to fix DACA,” Russell said. “I would hope that we would go back on those two issues.”

A path to citizenship for DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants, or at least more certainty of status, would have a positive impact on the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, Kaye said.

The district is majority Hispanic, and while most students are American-born citizens, there are many who were brought to the country illegally as children, including staff members.

“We have dozens, if not hundreds of employees, who are DACA recipients, and these are employees that provide really valuable services because many of our students speak Spanish,” Kaye said.

A loss of DACA would mean a loss of legal access to work, which would end employment for some teachers, classroom assistants and support staff.

However, even for students with DACA protections, government-based financial aid for college remains unavailable, which presents a barrier to postsecondary education.

“The vast majority of our kids are not coming from families who can afford a college education,” Kaye said. “Our DACA kids don't have access to the financial aid that their peers have access to.”

Even though Trump has threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not include tougher border security in an immigration reform package in the coming months, it appears unlikely there will be any movement before the November midterm elections.

During a time when the Trump administration has drawn criticism for its deportation efforts and intentionally separated children and parents at the border in order to deter legal and illegal immigration, Russell said America needs to take a Christian-based view of the issue.

“Treat others as you'd like to be treated. Engage one another,” Russell said.

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›