TOPEKA — With protesters chanting and pounding drums outside the Capitol, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the nation’s most prominent advocates of illegal immigration crackdowns, urged lawmakers Wednesday to force employers and law enforcement officers to help chase off illegal immigrants.
“There’s no question that if a state passes laws to discourage illegal immigration … then you will see some self-deportation,” Kobach told the House State and Federal Affairs Committee.
The protesters outside said those laws are more likely to produce discrimination, worker shortages and costly lawsuits.
“If Mr. Kobach, who is promoting, not only here in Kansas but all over the country, laws that are separating our families, that are leaving children without their parents, and they’re hurting everyone in our community, we will not stand for that,” Sulma Arias, executive director of Sunflower Community Action, told more than 300 people at the south steps of the Statehouse.
Lawmakers are considering a raft of controversial immigration-focused bills this week, several of which have failed in recent years.
Three focus on forcing employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check workers’ immigration status. Two of those apply only to government entities and their contractors; another would apply to all businesses.
A separate proposal parallels Arizona’s controversial law requiring police to check people’s residency when they suspect someone they have already stopped may be an illegal immigrant.
Meanwhile, a new proposal with strong support from the business community would require the state to help undocumented immigrants who face deportation but haven’t committed any crimes to get visas from the federal government to work in industries with labor shortages.
Advocates on both sides of the emotional issue agree that the federal government has failed the nation on immigration reform. But agreement fades after that.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, said the bills have some conflicting concepts and that it’s unclear which proposals his committee may advance to the House for a broader debate.
“You can’t have a red light and a green light that both mean go,” he said.
Federal law bans employers from hiring illegal immigrants. But thousands of them support their families both here and abroad in factories, in fields and on rooftops across the state by buying, stealing or making up Social Security numbers and other identifying documents.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce leads a broad group of major industrial and agricultural business organizations in an effort to help illegal workers get temporary passes to work in sectors that face worker shortages, such as landscaping, farming and construction. The passes would be available only to immigrants who have been in Kansas for at least five years. The proposal would require them to enroll in programs to learn English and allow them to obtain temporary driver’s licenses.
The coalition contends that legal workers simply won’t take unsavory manual labor jobs.
Dalton Hermes owns Hermes Landscaping and Hermes Nursery in the Kansas City area. He said his company has spent thousands trying to find workers with guest visas for seasonal jobs. Hermes said he advertised 85 positions in major publications and got four applications.
Kobach labeled the bill amnesty for illegal immigrants and said there are 95,500 Kansans who would probably be willing to fill jobs held by illegal immigrants, particularly if the wages weren’t depressed by the flow of illegal labor.
He said the best thing Kansas could do would be to require employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure they don’t continue to hire illegal immigrants.
Kobach, however, also advocates for police to check immigration status on anyone they’ve stopped and have reasonable suspicion of being here illegally.
Just what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” sparked questions.
Kobach said that could include someone acting evasive when a police officer asks for identification, if someone is driving on a known smuggling corridor, or even evidence of dust and sand that could come from a long journey across the desert.
Rep. Judith Loganbill, D-Wichita, said Kobach’s proposal seems aimed only at a certain group of people.
“I’m worried we’ve taken a thought process perhaps that we’re just going to concentrate on one particular group, and that bothers me because I’d hope that the people of Kansas would be above that,” she said.
Kobach said dusty clothing doesn’t have anything to do with race and that police could also find indications of a long journey through the snowy forests on the nation’s northern border.
Wichita police gave written testimony, submitted by city lobbyist Dale Goter, that said checking immigration status cuts into patrol time, and that every check they make and every time they take someone to jail will cut at least an hour or two they could be patrolling the streets, responding to more important crimes.
Police say the immigration checks are a bad idea that would destroy decades of work building trust through community policing.
“Creating a state law which pits local police against thousands of citizens will destroy this cultivated relationship,” the testimony says. “Crimes will no longer be reported by many of our Hispanic population. This lack of reporting serves the criminal element quite well.”
Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle