At least four bills to crack down on illegal immigrants are expected in Kansas this year when the Legislature convenes Jan. 14.
And at least three factions have emerged with differing ideas of how to bring order and justice to a problem that all agree is currently chaotic.
Those who advocate for get-tough immigration reform say illegal immigrants are flouting the law simply be being here.
Others argue that the immigrants are victims of a broken system that callously breaks up families. They say the illegal immigrants work and pay taxes like citizens and should be treated as such.
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Still others say the state’s industries, particularly agriculture, would be damaged by mass deportation of low-wage workers, who perform necessary but unpleasant tasks such as processing meat and sweeping grain elevators.
With Congress paralyzed, several states have gone their own way with illegal-immigration crackdowns.
One of the leaders in that state-by-state campaign is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who rose to state and national prominence by authoring some of the most restrictive immigration laws in the country.
Kobach said he expects four main immigration-law measures to emerge in the upcoming legislative session:
• A bill to require state and local governments, and possibly private businesses, to vet employees through an electronic database of legal workers.
• A bill similar to what Kobach wrote for Arizona, requiring local law enforcement officers to check immigration status of people they come in contact with, if they suspect the person is here illegally.
• A bill that would prohibit any public benefits going to anyone here illegally.
• A bill to repeal the 2004 decision by the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to allow illegal students who graduate from Kansas high schools and have lived at least three years in the state to qualify to pay the lower in-state tuition at Kansas colleges and universities.
Those ideas have previously passed the conservative House but failed in the Senate, where until this year a more moderate brand of Republicanism held sway, Kobach said.
With the moderates swept out of power in the 2012 GOP primaries, “The logjam will break in 2013,” Kobach predicted. “One or more of these bills will pass both houses.”
And it’s high time that happened, he said.
“You’ve seen Kansas sort of frozen in place on immigration issues,” Kobach said. “States around us all have taken steps to discourage illegal immigration.”
Meanwhile, Kansas encouraged it with the tuition bill, he said.
The result, he said, is “a growing realization (by illegal immigrants) that Kansas is the sanctuary state of the Midwest.”
Get illegal immigrants out of Kansas and “You would see jobs open up for the tens of thousands of Kansans who are now receiving unemployment benefits.”
Critics of crackdown
Kobach and those who agree with him will face fierce opposition in Topeka from groups like the Wichita-based Sunflower Community Action.
They argue that doing away with the illegal immigrants’ labor would cripple western Kansas, which relies on illegal-immigrant labor to compete with other countries on agriculture.
Janeth Vazquez, communications coordinator for Sunflower, said some believe that illegal immigrants are taking services and dodging taxes, when the opposite is true.
Like anyone else, they pay sales tax when they buy things and have money taken out of their paychecks for income tax. And unlike legal workers, they seldom file for a tax refund or government benefits, because they don’t want to attract government attention to their immigration status, she said.
“If anything, they contribute more” than similarly situated legal workers, Vazquez said.
But Vazquez said Sunflower is most concerned about the human cost of cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Sunflower officials recently joined a national effort called “Keeping Families Together,” which is seeking citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal residents of the United States.
The group’s goal is to “reaffirm the sanctity of families” that have both legal and illegal members, she said.
The most wrenching cases are those involving deportation proceedings against parents whose children have been born and raised as U.S. citizens, she said.
In many cases, that creates a dilemma where the children are torn between staying in the U.S. with relatives or friends, or moving to their parents’ native country where they don’t know the language or the culture.
“They’re like orphan kids, with parents,” Vazquez said.
While Kobach predicts conservative Republicans will pass laws to crack down on illegal immigrants, immigration is one of those issues where it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the conservative position is.
Rep. Michael O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, the conservative outgoing speaker of the House, said he spent a lot of time fending off hard-line immigration bills that he felt would damage the economy, particularly in the agriculture-dominated western part of the state.
O’Neal, who resigned from the Legislature, is now president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
Campaign spending by the Chamber Political Action Committee propelled many of the new conservative legislators to victory in the August primaries.
The Chamber-backed candidates are primarily free-market conservatives dedicated to minimum interference with business.
O’Neal said the Chamber is part of a coalition of business groups opposed to forcing companies to shed some of their hardest-working employees because the system doesn’t provide a realistic path to legalize them.
“It turns good people into ones who will commit fraud to get a job and keep a job,” he said.
O’Neal said tough immigration laws would have a “chilling effect on our pro-jobs agenda,” a big part of which is to try to grow population and revitalize western Kansas.
O’Neal blames Congress for the chaos.
“They can’t agree on the time of day, let alone immigration policy,” he said. “We can’t kick them out and we can’t just ignore them. There’s got to be a plan.”
He said he had worked to negotiate a bill to create a specialized identification card for illegal-immigrant workers with stable employment, to help them avoid problems with state and local enforcement while the federal government works out its issues. That, he said, would allow the state to separate the illegal immigrants who just want to do their jobs from those who come here to commit other crimes.
“I hate it that we have a system in place where we put good people at risk because we can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” he said.
Initially, immigration activists liked the plan, but they ultimately backed away over concerns that the special identifications would create a database that could be used for mass round-ups if the Legislature takes the hard line.
Kobach said any sort of state-level amnesty would be impossible and illegal.
“You might as well pass a law saying all Kansans should sprout wings and fly,” he said. “It just can’t happen.”
And he disputes that strong enforcement of immigration law would be as disruptive as opponents claim.
In Mississippi, an agrarian state that passed tough immigration laws with Kobach’s help, initial shortages of labor when immigrants left quickly stabilized and “the crops got picked on time,” he said.
While Kobach has pushed for immigration crackdowns in many states, he said he does not plan to propose legislation here – as he did with voter-identification bills – because it’s not part of his official charge as secretary of state.
His office staff has been instructed to defer immigration inquiries to his personal e-mail and phone, and he said if he testifies to the Legislature, it will be as a private citizen, not a state official.
Kobach said it’s too early to predict where the Legislature will land on the immigration issue, but the indicators won’t be long in coming.
“We will probably know in January when it becomes clear which legislators sponsor which bills,” he said.