M. Scott Carter

An Oklahoma native, M. Scott Carter is a political-investigative reporter and columnist for the Oklahoma City Journal Record where he covers the Oklahoma legislature and state government. A graduate of Northern Oklahoma College and the University of Oklahoma, Carter has spent the majority of his career writing about the impact of government policy on the general public. In 2007, he was awarded the Marshall Gregory Award by the Oklahoma Education Association for a series of stories exploring teacher pay in Oklahoma. Carter has also earned numerous state and national awards for his work; he is the author of two novels both scheduled for publication in 2011. Carter was a 2011 Heartland fellow.

2011 Project Series

Undocumented in the Heartland

Story 1:  Immigrants vital to state’s economy

If Oklahoma were to be successful in forcing every undocumented worker living here to leave, the state’s economy could see a loss of more than $580 million in economic activity, a recent study shows. Immigrants – both documented and undocumented – studies show, are vital to the state and the nation’s economy. Click to see full story.

Story 2:  Some religious leaders active, others silent on state immigration

For several years now Oklahomans have argued about immigration using three basic concepts: laws, money and policy. But the fourth component of the immigration debate, the moral issue, has been largely ignored by the general public, the Legislature, and even a majority of Oklahoma’s religious community. Click to see full story.

Story 3:  Immigration policies continue to cause controversy

More than 120 years ago the state of Oklahoma was birthed by a group of opportunistic settlers and illegal immigrants. Now, new waves of immigrants are crossing state borders seeking economic and social opportunities. Getting here is difficult. Staying has become even harder. Click to see full story.

Story 4:  Experts: Immigrants here to stay

Despite claims by state lawmakers and others that Oklahoma’s undocumented immigrant population is a drain on state resources and the economy, demographic experts and economists say the state’s hope for growth rests with its immigrants. Click to see full story.

Story 5:  Former Census director: Immigrants needed

Oklahoma – and the rest of the United States – will need a diverse immigrant population if both hope to grow, according to the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Click to see full story.

Story 6:  From illegal to successful, meet Marcelino Garcia

Thirty-two years ago, Marcelino “Chelino” Garcia walked to the United States. Since then, Garcia has seen his company grow from a single restaurant in 1990 to a chain of 11 today.
Click to see full story.

Story Behind the Story

The young Hispanic woman asked me a question I couldn’t answer.

We were seated in a small, simply furnished room at Holy Angels Catholic Church is south Oklahoma City. I sat across from a young couple who along with several others, had come to the church to talk with our group, the 15 fellows of the Institute for Justice and Journalism.

The families were undocumented – illegal if you will – immigrants who had come to Oklahoma seeking a better life. They were neatly dressed, sincere and polite. They had taken huge risks by coming that day, but had agreed to talk to our group to provide a more balanced portrait of what being an immigrant meant.

Had I not been informed ahead of time about the couple’s immigration status I would not have known – proof for me that no one looks like “an illegal immigrant.”

At first the conversation was awkward. To my left an older man described his efforts to come to Oklahoma and why he wanted to stay.

After the older man spoke, the young woman across from me began speaking. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I sat there and tried to look intelligent. Thankfully, Sandra Baltazar Martinez offered to translate for me. She turned to the young woman and smiled.

The woman looked at Sandra and spoke quietly for a few seconds. As she spoke she pointed at me.

“She asked what you think of her and her husband,” Sandra said. “She wants to know what you think of them.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

Sandra relayed my answer and the young woman spoke again. “She said most people believe immigrants are gang members or thieves,” Sandra said. “That’s why she wants to know what you think of them.”

I looked at my hands. I wasn’t sure what to say. In the 35 years that I have worked as a journalist, I have never had another person ask me what I thought of their existence. Sitting there and still feeling stupid – I kept telling myself I should have been smart enough to learn some Spanish so I could communicate – I suddenly realized just how deeply the young woman’s question affected me.

I was able to overcome the language barrier with the help of a colleague, but I wasn’t sure I could overcome this family’s fear that I would turn them over to the authorities or the fact that they felt they needed to ask my opinion of them.

I stammered back an answer. “Please tell them I’m glad they are here,” I said. Sandra delivered my response and I watched the woman’s face turn into a brilliant smile.

At that point, I heard her story.

*  *  *

Having covered immigration legislation for several years and, having worked as a student for last year’s IJJ conference, I was elated to be chosen as a fellow this year. Being exposed to economists, professors, demographers, members of the Hispanic community, attorneys, judges and my fellow reporters changed my entire thinking on the immigration issue.

I also found a vast expanse of resources that I would not have had access to had I not participated in the conference.

Because I work for a business-centered newspaper, I wanted my project to paint a large portrait of the immigration issue in Oklahoma. Instead of one big story, my project for my newspaper, the Journal Record, was a package of six stories and photos.

A majority of my stories were about the demographics of immigration and the economic impact of immigrants – both legal and undocumented – in Oklahoma. I also included an interview with a successful, formerly undocumented immigrant who had become a citizen and built a very successful company.

Another story placed the immigration issue in a social context, showing the irony of how lawmakers from a state originally founded by undocumented immigrants were, in turn, trying to rid the state of undocumented immigrants.

For most of my stories, I chose to focus on numbers and data and money. But for my final story, I wanted to show how most of Oklahoma’s religious community has failed to come to grips with the issue of immigration and has remained silent.

I felt like this story needed to be told because, at least in Oklahoma, it hasn’t been explored. And while no one from the large Protest denominations I contacted would speak with me, I believe the story shined a light on a problem that, until now, had gone unmentioned.

Reaction to the package has been mixed. A couple of people posted positive messages on the Journal Record’s website and I received two negative telephone messages. This I expected.

What surprised me, though, was an invitation by the Tulsa City-County Library System to address their Hispanic festival and, later, a luncheon meeting of the Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Those speeches are set for Oct. 13 and, yes, I jumped at the chance.

*  *  *

Without the IJJ fellowship, I doubt I would have been able to develop such an extensive package of stories. Nor would I have had the understanding and information that I now have about immigrant and its effect on Oklahoma.

But, perhaps, the biggest outcome of the entire project wasn’t a change in policy. Here, in Oklahoma, it’s hard to counter several years of bigotry and hatred and even a full- scale package on immigration won’t put too many holes in a solid foundation of untruths.

The biggest outcome of my stories was a change in me.

I now understand – in a much deeper way – the human nature of immigration and the mixture of fear and hope and sweat and prayer. I also know, first hand, what it’s like to face a language barrier.

Doing the IJJ fellowship was, for me, a humbling experience. It forced me to look and talk with and learn from people who had everything to lose. And it has forced me to try and develop a well-reasoned answer to the question, “what do I think of them?”

One Response to “M. Scott Carter”

  1. Daniel M. Kowalski July 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    Scott, IJJ was lucky to have you in Heartland 2011. Thank you.

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