Sen. Shortey presses on immigration reform, faces opposition from religious leaders

In March, the Oklahoma House of Representatives gave overwhelming approval to House Bill 1446. The measure is intended to toughen state enforcement of immigration provisions, beyond strictures first enacted in the state’s House Bill 1804. That measure is mired in litigation, with some provisions suspended from enforcement. 

H.B. 1446 cleared the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passing 87-7. While the contentious issue of illegal immigration remains popular with many legislators, further focus on the issue is controversial among many businesses and, increasingly, certain religious leaders.

State Sen. Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City and Rep. George Faught of Muskogee have pressed H.B. 1446 through the process thus far. Shortey has worked in alliance with Faught and with state Rep. Randy Terrill of Oklahoma, original author of H.B. 1804. 

In statements sent to CapitolBeatOK, Sen. Shortey has explained his advocacy of this and other bills touching the issue.

“Our constituents have made it clear that they expect a proactive approach from state leaders,” Shortey said. “We owe it to the citizens of Oklahoma to act on these issues. The costs to the state are simply too great for us to continue waiting for the federal government to get serious about the enforcement of immigration law. We have to do what we can with the tools we have at our disposal.”

Advocating for measures targeting illegal immigration, Shortey said, “I authored this proposal because I care about the people of my district and have witnessed firsthand the manner in which illegal immigration can limit economic development, increase crime rates and tear families apart.” He continued, saying that passage would be “a strong step toward addressing the issue and a victory for Oklahoma.”

In opposition to Shortey’s approach to the issue, Oklahoma’s two Catholic bishops recently issued a statement citing Sacred Scripture and encouraging respect and dignity for every human being. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa said the dictates of Scripture “cannot be ignored, or in any way mitigated by human law.”

Most of their joint statement, issued last month, follows:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of our elected representatives as they debate many bills which have not only political and economic, but also moral dimensions. … 

“Immigration reform is primarily the responsibility of our federal officials. That being said, any reform measures at the state level ought to begin with a commitment to respect the fundamental dignity of every human person, not merely citizens or those who are in our country and state with the proper documentation. We are concerned also that these immigration bills will have the intentional or unintentional effect of instilling fear in an already vulnerable population.

“While the Catholic Church recognizes the right of governments to protect their sovereign borders, it also recognizes the principle of solidarity and that we are all persons crated by God. … [H]uman dignity and human rights are not commodities to be allocated according to nationality.”

The two men said they hoped Congress would enact “comprehensive, fair and equitable immigration reform. … [W]e want to reiterate that the Catholic Church will always obey the command of Christ who tells us ‘when I was hungry you fed me’ because in the poor we see the face of Christ Himself. We will continue to do this for all of the poor regardless of race, status, religion or creed. We pray that our legislators will both remember and apply this same command in all its deliberations and debates.”

Also speaking out this past month against additional legislation focused on illegal immigration has been the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. The group is comprised of 16 member denominations, approximately 1,500 local congregations and approximately 500,000 members in Oklahoma. 

Signatories included The Rev. Dale Assink, Regional Minister, Synod of the Heartland, Reformed Church in America; James R. Bellatti, Executive Presbyter, Cimarron Presbytery; The Rev. Krista Betz, Interim Conference Minister, Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, United Church of Christ; The Rev. Aaron Carland, General Presbyter, Indian Nations Presbytery, Presbyterian Church, USA; The Rev. Dr. Gregory J. Coulter, General Presbyter, Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, Presbyterian Church, USA; Rex Friend, Religious Society of Friends; The Rt. Rev. Samuel L. Green, Presiding Bishop, Twelfth Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church; Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr., Bishop, Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Oklahoma, Indian Missionary Conference; The Rev. Dr. Thomas R. Jewell, Regional Pastor, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oklahoma; The Rt. Rev. Dr. Edward J. Konieczny, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma; The Rev. Dr. Charles H. Maahs, Interim Bishop, Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Sadie Mast, Mennonite Church; The Rev. Charles (“T”) Thomas, Coordinator, Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma; Bishop Darryl B. Starnes, Sr., Bishop, Southwestern Delta Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Bishop James B. Walker, Bishop, Ninth Episcopal District, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; The Rev. Dr. George E. Young, Sr., Progressive Oklahoma Baptist State Convention; and The Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, Executive Director, Oklahoma Conference of Churches. 

Archbishop Coakley and Bishop Slattery also joined the conference statement.

That Conference of Churches statement said, in part, “As faith leaders from across Oklahoma, we unite our voices and urge our elected leaders to set and foster a new and gracious tone in the immigration debate, to seek the common good and to reject political rhetoric that tears at the very fabric of our society, and distracts from the development of good policy. We seek and support laws and policies that uphold the human dignity of each person.

“We believe that the only true solution to address our country’s broken immigration system is the passage of comprehensive immigration reform by the federal government. On the other hand, if there are specific public safety issues which need to be addressed by the Oklahoma legislature, that legislation must only target the criminal perpetrators and avoid the desire of some to stereotype and scapegoat an entire population based upon fear, prejudice or the actions of a few. …

“As pastors, we are bound by Christ to spread the Good News, to advocate for the oppressed and to care for every member of our communities.  We know that what harms one part of the community causes damage to all of God’s children and to our society.  We stand in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the undocumented against laws and policies that reject or ignore their human dignity and devastate their families. 

“The measure of successful immigration reform is not how it affects the secure and the powerful, but the weak and the vulnerable.”

The signatories said this year’s Oklahoma bills copy measures unveiled previously in Arizona, and “ignore the vital and significant contributions that our undocumented brothers and sisters make to our society. They needlessly threaten their safety and welfare, deny their human dignity, and force them deeper into the shadows. These bills make criminals out of citizens who employ or otherwise assist them. … 

“We implore our elected leaders to demonstrate compassion, common sense, and moral and political courage by rejecting these anti-immigrant measures and instead pursue legislation and policies which respect the human dignity of all, foster a cohesive society, and reflect that every person, regardless of legal status, has been made in the image and likeness of God.”