Immigration continues to divide Kansas Republicans

TOPEKA – House Republicans who want to avoid a political dispute over cracking down on illegal immigration succeeded Friday in blocking a debate, and the chamber’s leader said he doesn’t plan to bring the issue up again this year.

Yet it wasn’t clear that Speaker Mike O’Neal, of Hutchinson, can prevent the House from discussing immigration, an issue that divides his fellow Republicans. The member who pushed for debate Friday said she expects legislators to have another chance – and for pressure to build on GOP lawmakers.

The House sided with O’Neal and voted 91-31 against a request from Rep. Charlotte O’Hara, an Overland Park Republican, to dislodge an immigration bill from committee. The measure would require state and local government agencies and businesses holding contracts worth more than $5,000 with those agencies to use the federal E-Verify database to check whether new employees are in the United States legally.

A narrower bill, requiring state agencies to use E-Verify starting in 2013, cleared committee Thursday. But O’Neal said he won’t schedule a debate on it because he’s sure House members will insist on debating other, broader proposals to crack down on illegal immigration, as well as a plan backed by business groups to place some illegal immigrants in hard-to-fill jobs, particularly in agriculture.

“I don’t think we need to debate immigration this year, but if we do, it’s got to be something that people can agree on,” O’Neal said. “That consensus has not been reached, and so I have no intention of debating it if I can help it.”

Friday was the last day in session for lawmakers before their annual spring break. They plan to reconvene April 25 to wrap up the year’s business, and O’Hara said the public will have a chance to influence legislators while lawmakers are away from the Statehouse.

O’Hara said the House’s rejection of her request wasn’t disappointing because it was difficult for GOP members to vote against their leaders.

“It’s sown some seeds. We’ll see what the grassroots do with it,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll have another opportunity.”

Secretary of State Kris Kobach also is pushing for immigration legislation. Kobach is a former law professor who helped write tough immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona, and he’s been visible nationally.

Kobach said if the House doesn't debate immigration, members running for re-election this year will have a hard time explaining their lack of action as they campaign because Kansans want lawmakers to tackle the issue.

“I fail to understand why a divisive debate over abortion or education is acceptable and a divisive debate over immigration is not acceptable,” Kobach said. “It's a strange position to take.”

Other proposals would make it a crime to knowingly harbor an illegal immigrant and would direct law enforcement officers to check the status of some people they stop. Meanwhile, agriculture groups and the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce are backing the jobs-for-immigrants plan.

“It’s a very difficult issue for the Republican Party in particular because it pits their tea party constituency against the business community constituency,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

Allie Devine, a Topeka attorney and former state agriculture secretary who lobbies for business owners on immigration policy, said the bill O’Hara favored drew opposition because it would have applied to most government contractors. Also, an out-of-compliance company could be forced to pay damages equal to 25 percent of their contract payments.

She and O’Neal see little opposition to the E-Verify bill applying only to state agencies.

“It’s the one piece that everybody can agree on, but no one will agree just to accept that piece,” O’Neal said.