TOPEKA — A day after President Obama pledged to sign comprehensive immigration reform bills, several Kansas business organizations said they’re encouraged by new efforts emerging in Washington. They urged state lawmakers to oppose tough new laws to crack down on illegal immigration because, they say, it would damage the state economy.
Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the politically powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, told a House panel Wednesday that immigration is a federal issue and that heavy-handed approaches to immigration on the state level create problems for local economies.
“We assure you if Kansas takes similar steps as Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and others, we will see significant economic damage to our state,” Stafford testified on behalf of the chamber and 26 other organizations, including the Wichita Independent Business Association.
Stafford said crackdowns in those states hurt those states’ agricultural sectors.
He said he’s encouraged by Obama’s urging of Congress to pass comprehensive reform.
Meanwhile, the business organizations again this year are backing a proposal calling on the state to help qualified illegal immigrants get approval from the federal government to work in private sector jobs in industries with worker shortages.
The message from the business organizations conflicts with proposals backed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and some lawmakers.
Earlier this month, Kobach told the committee that Kansas is the only state in the five-state region that isn’t trying to prevent illegal immigration with state laws.
Kobach has called for repeal of a law that lets children who were brought here illegally and who have spent at least three years in Kansas high schools pay in-state tuition at state colleges. About 600 students take advantage of that.
Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, R-Grandview Plaza, questioned why the state would assist people who are knowingly breaking the law
“We either are a nation of laws or we are not,” he said.
Rothlisberg said providing resources or helping illegal immigrants stay in the state sends the wrong message to people waiting for legal entry to the country.
“It’s up to the state not to assist or aid in illegal activities,” he said.
Kobach also has called for state laws similar to the controversial law approved in Arizona that would require law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they have already stopped on suspicion of some other violation.
Kobach and some Democratic and Republican lawmakers want to require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers before they’re hired. The Kansas Society for Human Resource Management opposes mandated use of E-Verify, which it says is flawed and creates burdens in hiring.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Johnson County, has said he wants lawmakers to focus on budget and taxing issues — not social issues, including immigration.
About 65,000 illegal immigrants lived in Kansas in 2010, according to the PEW Hispanic Center. But illegal immigration nationwide has declined as result of the recession and tougher border security.
"Comprehensive immigration reform is no longer a matter of if, but when," said Elias Garcia, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
He predicted such reform will be approved this summer.