TOPEKA — Demands for the rule of law clashed with calls of compassion for strangers as the state House Judiciary Committee took the Legislature's first crack at an Arizona-style immigration proposal.
Proponents argued that House Bill 2372 is needed to preserve the benefits of U.S. citizenship for citizens.
"Illegal immigration is a festering cancer that damages both our society and those unlawfully seeking employment," testified Larry Halloran, leader of Wichita 9/12, the political group founded by Fox News Network host Glenn Beck. "It is past time for the half-measured approaches, nod-and-wink policies and felonious excuses of citizen, employer and legislator alike."
Opponents said the measure would target racial and ethnic groups for extra attention from law enforcement and handicap Kansas businesses and charities.
"This terrible piece of legislation is not what Kansas is all about," said Virginia Mendoza of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "The only thing this bill will accomplish is to sow the seeds of fear, paranoia, frustration and anger... It will only legitimize discrimination against all Latinos and undocumented residents of Kansas."
The bill is being proposed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who co-authored the Arizona law.
Bill's main provisions
Major provisions of the bill would:
* Require police who make traffic stops or arrests to hold people until their immigration status is confirmed, if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.
* Require public employers and private companies that do more than $5,000 business with the state to check all new employees' immigration status through the Department of Homeland Security's E-verify system.
* Require people to provide proof of citizenship or legal resident status to qualify for most public benefits.
* Create a new crime of harboring or shielding illegal immigrants, or encouraging them to come to or stay in the state.
* Allow private citizens to bring court action against public agencies or officials if they think they are not enforcing immigration law vigorously enough.
The bill was batted about in a nearly four-hour hearing. Nearly 40 people signed up to testify and, at its peak, the crowd numbered about 200, overflowing the old Supreme Court chamber at the Capitol and spilling into the hallway outside.
For the most part, the crowd was well-behaved, although committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, did admonish bill opponents for some sporadic bursts of applause and laughter.
Much of the testimony was emotional as opponents talked about how they perceive the bill will affect their lives.
"I came to the U.S. when I was six months old," said Ricardo Quinones, an undocumented University of Kansas student from Kansas City, Mo. He said he pays $22,000 a year in out-of-state tuition because his immigration status barred him from Missouri universities.
"I grew up here all my life, I consider myself American," he said, adding that he graduated high school with a 3.6 grade average, played football and was captain of the tennis team.
But he said his parents' efforts to petition for him to get legal residency failed when he "aged out" at 21, leaving him no clear path to citizenship.
He said the provision requiring police to check citizenship will result in distrust of law enforcement, citing a personal example from his childhood.
"When I grew up, my parents always told me keep your status to yourself. Do not trust anybody," he said. "When I was a little kid, my bike got stolen. I was crying, crying and nine years old. And then a police officer came up and instead of saying, 'Officer, someone stole my bike,' I just stopped and walked away."
Stories like his drew little sympathy from bill proponents such as Kathy Brown, an attorney from Kansas City.
"We (proponents) are all here today pleading for the rule of law to be enforced and you folks... I'm sure will spend a lot of time listening to the opinions of people who are illegally present here. What's wrong with that picture?" she said.
"We have to stop the PC, aka political correctness. We have to stop apologizing to people who are illegally present here for being racist, or say how sorry we are to separate families," she added. "You know, you commit a crime and go to jail, guess what? You're separating family."
She also objected to the Hispanic organization La Raza and said members had insulted the American flag by marching with it flown upside-down beneath the Mexican flag.
She also had a warning for the legislators.
"You're all aware of what happened at the polls in November," she said. "We are watching your vote on this. We are the taxpayers, we are your employers and if you don't vote these series of plagues out, we will vote you out."
The proposal faces opposition from business groups and the Catholic Church.
Allie Devine, a lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association, represented a coalition of 20 agriculture and hospitality associations and chambers of commerce, who think HB 2372 would burden business in economically troubled times. She said the businesses don't support the hiring of illegal workers, but favor a more comprehensive approach to the problem at the federal level.
"This is not easy stuff," she said. "Nobody has a silver bullet. If this was easy, they would have done it by now."
The bishops of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City filed written testimony in opposition and sent their lawyer, Jeanne Gorman, to represent them at the hearing.
She said the bishops are concerned that the church's spiritual and charitable activities, dispensed without regard to immigration status, could run afoul of the prohibitions on harboring and encouraging illegal immigrants.
"The bishops today are not suggesting that they wish to conceal or harbor anyone in violation of law," Gorman said. "However, the referenced provisions appear to threaten those who abide by and live out the... teachings of the Catholic Church in its more than 2,000-year history, that is to minister to the most basic spiritual and physical needs of the poor and afflicted as Jesus taught."
The hearing also featured dueling law professors from the same school.
Kobach, who came to the Secretary of State's Office from a position teaching law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has represented Arizona's law in court.
He acknowledged that much of it is not being enforced because it was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
But, he said, Kansas is in the Tenth Circuit, which has a long history of precedents upholding the principles that underlie HB 2372.
Professor Allen Rostron, also of the UMKC Law School, urged caution.
He said the state should wait until the constitutionality of Arizona's law is finally decided.
"By waiting... Kansas may be able to avoid getting bogged down in a very big, expensive legal battle over this," he said.