LAWRENCE — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Thursday that bills targeting people living in the United States illegally may be more likely to pass this year because of the pressure conservative candidates are applying on moderate state senators.
That includes, he said, a possible repeal of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
Kobach, one of the nation's most prominent advocates for tougher immigration laws, shared his opinion after a wide-ranging discussion of the impact of illegal immigration at the State of the State Kansas Economic Policy Conference on the campus of the University of Kansas.
Kobach defended the controversial laws he co-authored for Arizona and Alabama that, among other things, require law enforcement officers to check immigration status when they've stopped someone on suspicion of any other crime and are suspicious the person is here illegally.
Alabama's law allows police to detain people without bond who can't prove their residency, and it also requires schools to check residency status when kids register. Since key parts of the law were upheld by a federal judge in late September, illegal immigrants have been fleeing the state and schools have reported higher absentee rates.
Kobach acknowledged that such an exodus was an intended outcome of the law he helped write for Alabama. It may decrease population, but it has opened jobs for legal residents.
"You're encouraging people to comply with the law on their own," he said. "Nobody gets arrested. Nobody spends time in detention. We don't expend resources in removal hearings. People decide to comply with the law. I'd say that's a good thing."
His views were fiercely challenged.
Benjamin E. Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., said those laws undercut increasingly successful community policy efforts, use up time that officers could spend on more important matters, and lead to discrimination.
The laws specifically prohibit racial profiling.
"You can say that over and over again," Johnson said. "But if the byproduct of the law is going to be discriminatory behavior, then you can say that all day every day. You can say separate is equal. But separate is not equal even when they said it in Plessy versus Ferguson. By its nature it is discriminatory. There is going to be a population who police officers are going to be asking for immigration status."
During an earlier panel conducted via video conference from Ulysses, Garden City Police Chief James R. Hawkins said laws like Arizona's could break the trust he and his department constantly work to build with the area's large immigrant communities and that it could result in fewer people coming forward with information about crimes.
Kobach later disputed that. He said illegal immigrants almost always avoid contact with law enforcement and that immigrants will understand that the law allows police to question their status just if they've already been stopped on suspicion of another crime.
Earlier this year, a bill similar to Arizona's was introduced in the Kansas House that also would have required employers with government contracts to check workers' immigration status with a federal database. It was debated on several occasions, but it didn't get a vote. Kobach said he expects similar legislation to emerge during the 2012 session, though it may come as several bills instead of a wide-ranging one.
Meanwhile, the Kansas House voted 72-50 to repeal a law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they have attended Kansas high school for at least three years and graduated. The bill died in the Senate, after a committee recommended it not be passed.
This year several conservative Republican candidates have filed to run against moderate Republican senators, and the immigration issue could be one of several decisive factors conservative voters look closely at.
In 2010, the average annual undergraduate in-state tuition at state universities was $5,545. For out-of-state students, it averaged $14,977. In the 2011 fiscal year, 61 students enrolled at Kansas universities under the provisions of the law out of 101,008 enrollments overall, according to legislative research.
Schools are required under law to educate K-12 students regardless of immigration status.
Johnson said allowing the children of illegal immigrants to go to college is a productive investment because it prepares them to find jobs in an increasingly high-skills job market. He sought to diffuse the idea that illegal immigrants aren't learning English and integrating into American society, and he said Benjamin Franklin was wrong when he warned that German immigrants would make Philadelphia a colony of aliens.
"It turns out immigrants are not Peter Pan," Johnson said. "They don't stay in this little never-never land where they never change, they never grow up, they never get any better at anything, they're always poor. That's not what happens. They get better. And all the evidence suggests that they are learning language faster than this romanticized period of immigration."
Kobach said education is just one of the ways illegal immigration costs citizen taxpayers and that students may not be able to get jobs after college anyway since many high-skill employers aren't willing to risk hiring an illegal immigrant. He said the in-state tuition law doesn't even allow people on lawful student visas to pay in-state rates.
"If that is not poorly constructed state law, I don't know what is," he said. "If we want to give a subsidy, we should probably give a subsidy first and foremost to U.S. citizens from the state of Kansas, secondly to U.S. citizens from other states, and thirdly to aliens who follow our rules and come here legally."
And he disputed Johnson's contention that everyone shares the blame for America's poor immigration system, its porous nature and the nation's failure to find meaningful resolutions that have led to so many people living here for decades illegally.
"To say that everyone in this room is responsible for their behavior is like saying everyone in this room is responsible when a rapist goes off the rails," he said. A few in the room gasped at the comparison. Kobach backed off it and offered the same comparison with a burglar.
"To say that society is collectively responsible when someone knowingly breaks the law... it doesn't reflect reality," he said.