Politics & Government

Federal immigration uncertainty causes anxiety in western Kansas

The federal fight against illegal immigration – intensified by President Donald Trump’s decision to end a program shielding those brought here illegally as children – is raising fears among some about the availability of workers in western Kansas.

State Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the possible end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program "scares the heck out of me."

"Without those workers, the Dreamers, we’re going to be in dire straits," Doll said.

Undocumented immigrants have long supplied labor in Kansas agriculture. But the pool of available workers began shrinking a few years ago amid drought and increased immigration enforcement by former President Barack Obama, said Joe Jury, a farm and feedlot owner southeast of Garden City.

The end of DACA, which allows people brought to the country illegally as children to remain in the United States and work legally, could push away even more immigrants. That may be especially true if DACA recipients are deported and other family members in the country illegally go with them.

Jury said he downsized his operation over the past year because of trouble finding skilled labor. At one point he had up to 10 full-time workers but now it’s just him and his family.

He spoke of the shrinking pool of immigrant labor, as well as difficulty competing against larger operations for workers.

"We just finally decided to downsize to the point where we didn’t need as much labor," Jury said.

He readily says he hired undocumented immigrants.

Most of the undocumented workers Jury employed had come to the country legally but overstayed their visas, he said, adding that as enforcement increased, it became "harder and harder" for them. Some went back to Mexico to visit family and never came back.

Mark Hinde, chairman of the board of directors for the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, said he had not heard great discussion specifically about DACA but that immigrants are a big part of the community.

He said businesses want the immigration system to be easier to navigate.

“I can confidently say nobody is out here looking just to bring anybody who wants to walk across the border into this country. They want things to be done correctly, done in a legal manner, but they also want that process not to be so daggum burdensome on the individuals that are wanting to do that,” Hinde said.

Between 2009 and 2014, the estimated number of undocumented immigrants shrank in Kansas, one of only six states where the undocumented population decreased during that time. Pew Research Center estimated the state had about 75,000 undocumented immigrants in 2014, though how many work in agriculture is unclear.

Nationally, about 14,000 people who were eligible for DACA work in farming, fishing and forestry occupations, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That is 2 percent of all DACA-eligible individuals.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican candidate for governor who is a proponent of strict immigration enforcement, said he isn’t concerned about the ability of businesses to find employees after DACA ends.

"There are so many young American citizens who are looking for work. And they're competing directly against the DACA recipient aliens. So I am not worried that when the DACA aliens leave the United States that somehow it'll be impossible to fill those jobs," Kobach said.

"Americans will see those job openings. And it'll be a good thing if Americans can come off of employment and can find the jobs that they need to support their families."

Jury said American citizens in his area aren’t interested in feedlot jobs.

In the past he used a job service in Garden City to get extra help, but said he couldn’t think of anyone who stayed with him longer than half a year. One person didn’t even last an afternoon.

"My best supply of employees was word of mouth through the Hispanic population," Jury said.

Trump has said he is ending DACA over concerns the program was unconstitutional. Obama started the program in 2012 through an executive order.

Congress could make the program permanent through legislation. Trump and Democrats have been working toward a deal.

Congress has roughly six months to act before the first Dreamers begin to see their work permits expire.

Josh Svaty, a Democratic candidate for governor who used to represent a western Kansas district in the Legislature, said Kansas communities have been a model for how ethnic diversity can be "fantastic" for economic growth. In Finney County where Garden City is located, nearly 50 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau.

But uncertainty in Washington, D.C., has communities and business unsure of what’s going to happen next and unable to plan for the future.

"I am very concerned the federal level doesn’t understand even leaving people in limbo creates an enormous amount of business limbo for individuals and companies operating here," Svaty said.

Whether Congress will act is unclear. U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Great Bend Republican who represents western Kansas, has made clear he supports some type of protections for Dreamers.

"Congress must use legal, legislative avenues to figure out how to help these young people, so long as they follow our laws," he said in a statement.

McClatchy reported this week that the White House is expected to ask Congress to approve other immigration policies as part of a deal. They would include raising fees for visas, reducing legal immigration and hiring more immigration officers, among others.

Contributing: The Eagle’s Daniel Salazar

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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