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Kansas Legislature Speaker O’Neal: Don’t address immigration in this session

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, at 2:09 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at 9:24 a.m.

— House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said Friday he doesn’t want the House to consider any immigration-related bills this session.

“I’ve made it pretty clear that my preference this year, like the governor, would be that we not address immigration,” he said. “But if we do address immigration in some way, I want it to be something that gets a lot of buy-in.”

That’s unlikely, he said.

“What may work in eastern Kansas may not work in western Kansas,” he said. “And I want the entire state to be on the same page on this and not pick winners and losers in our economy.”

His statement comes after a week in which the House Federal and State Affairs Committee considered a raft of immigration bills, including one that would require employers to check workers’ immigration status, one that would require law enforcement officers to check immigration status when they’re suspicious, and one to help illegal immigrants get work visas to take jobs in industries with labor shortages.

All face an uncertain future in a hectic legislative session dominated by tax policy, school funding, redistricting and huge liabilities in the state’s pension system.

Proposals floated by Secretary of State Kris Kobach that crack down on immigration have drawn droves of critics, including major business groups, who say such laws would lead to discrimination and lawsuits and hurt the state’s economy.

Kobach, meanwhile, contends that Kansas will become a harbor state for illegal immigrants if it doesn’t get tough now and says his proposals would help free up jobs for 95,500 unemployed Kansans.

Eric Stafford, a lobbyist with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said a coalition of business groups still wants to see a bill move forward to help illegal immigrants who haven’t committed crimes work legally in industries with labor shortages.

The initiative is being considered by House and Senate committees. Its prospects are unclear.

However, Stafford said, the chamber is OK with seeing the other Kobach-supported bills die. The chamber has opposed those measures, including the requirement that employers use the E-Verify system.

Many businesses have concerns about legal issues and the government oversight that goes along with agreements they’d have to sign to enlist in the E-Verify service, he said.

O’Neal said proposals to require government entities to use the federal E-Verify system to check the residency status of workers and contractors may have significant support. But he said even that has problems.

The state must be careful how it handles immigration because it’s a mostly federal issue, O’Neal said.

“I don’t want to do something just out of political expediency just so we can have a good vote,” he said. “Immigration is a big deal.”

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he doesn’t think Kobach’s bill will gain any traction in the Senate and he’s unsure how E-Verify bills would fare.

Morris said he has missed some hearings on a bill that would help illegal immigrants get visas to work legally in sectors with labor shortages and that he lacks details on how it works. But he said he senses significant support for it and liked what he heard when he was briefed on it months ago.

“That bill, to me, is good enough that it can serve as a model for legislatures across the country,” he said.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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