After four days of passionate testimony last week, Kansas' leading Republican lawmakers don't appear willing to tackle the aggressive immigration measures that Secretary of State Kris Kobach — a fellow Republican — has been advocating.
“I don’t have a burning desire to address immigration this year,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “If we do address immigration in some way, I want it to be something that gets a lot of buy-in and that people can agree this is the way to go.”
Lawmakers in this legislative session have a buffet of choices on immigration compared with last year, when all of Kobach’s ideas were rolled into one bill that died in a House committee. But this year immigration is competing for attention with such big-ticket issues as overhauling the state tax code and school finance reform.
If lawmakers follow some of Kobach’s tougher immigration proposals, however, they would be passing bills that would:
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Deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
Require governments to verify that applicants for public benefits are here legally.
Make it illegal to harbor undocumented immigrants.
Require police to verify of the citizenship of anyone they detain if they reasonably suspect that person is here illegally.
Kansas lawmakers could take a narrower approach and go with something that would only require the state to participate in an Internet-based system called E-Verify, which allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.
Interviews with lawmakers indicated that some variation of an E-Verify proposal might be doable this year.
“I think you will see something happen on immigration, but I think it’s probably going to be pretty limited in scope,” said Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and the House minority leader.
Kobach said he think it’s most likely that an E-Verify bill will get traction in the Legislature.
“As every Kansas legislator who goes door-to-door and talks to his or her constituents knows, the people of Kansas are becoming increasingly frustrated with legislative inaction on the subject of illegal immigration,” he said Monday.
Kobach has argued strenuously for tough new laws to deal with the state’s estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants. Without doing anything, Kansas will become a magnet for illegal immigration, he warned legislators.
“We risk being the one state in the middle of a five-state area that has actually done nothing to discourage illegal immigration,” he said. “At this point, we are the one state that is rewarding illegal aliens without doing anything to discourage them.”
In the Missouri Senate, Lee’s Summit Republican Will Kraus has crafted legislation mirroring controversial laws first passed in Arizona and Alabama. The bill mandates that all public schools verify the immigration status of enrollees and would require law enforcement officers to check immigration status on all stops when they have reasonable cause.
A Missouri House committee, meanwhile, has given its approval to legislation mandating the state only offer driver’s license exams in English.
But there’s a wild card in Kansas this year, with one proposal that presents a very different approach to immigration than the one Kobach advocates.
A coalition of businesses and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce wants a program allowing undocumented immigrants to help fill state-certified labor shortages in agriculture and other industries.
The program would cover undocumented immigrants who’ve been here at least five years and haven’t committed more than one misdemeanor, not counting traffic violations.
Blasted by Kobach and others as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, the proposal’s future is uncertain. Leading senators seem more amenable to the measure, although some lawmakers don’t think it will even get out of a House committee.
The reluctance of some lawmakers to embrace the immigration issue comes as there’s some political blowback to similar measures that have been enacted in states such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.
At a time when lawmakers are trying to make the Kansas economy grow, it doesn’t help for them to see headlines predicting that Alabama’s immigration law — written by Kobach — could result in the loss of up to $264 million in state income and sales taxes because of illegal immigrants forced to leave the state.
And there are already signs that lawmakers there may rewrite portions of the law, which is being challenged by the federal government.
“The more people are learning about what has happened in Arizona, the more people want to shy from the direction (Kobach) wants to go,” House minority leader Davis said.
Reports from Arizona about the recall of the state Senate president who backed that law, also drafted by Kobach, were on the mind of Senate President Steve Morris when he recently discussed immigration bills with reporters.
“I think that’s the first time in history that a Senate president’s ever been recalled, and it was strictly because of the support for that very punitive bill,” Morris said.
Asked about the prospects of the more aggressive immigration proposals backed by Kobach, Morris said, “I don’t sense support in the Senate for that kind of legislation.”
In the House, Rep. Steve Brunk, a Bel Aire Republican who’s chairman of the committee evaluating the immigration proposals, wouldn’t predict how receptive his committee might be toward the bills.
But the fact that last year’s single immigration bill was broken into separate pieces of legislation this year meant leadership didn’t think the entire bill had a chance of passing, said state Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican.
“I think the bill this year that has the greatest likelihood of getting out of committee to the floor of the House is the E-Verify portion,” Rubin said.
He noted that the bill requiring law enforcement to check the citizenship of people they detain would probably be the most problematic.
Capt. Tom Hongslo of the Lenexa Police Department warned legislators that the law could create a perception that authorities are targeting people based on skin color rather than their behavior, and that such detentions would take cops off the street for long periods of time.
“It is the time and it’s the manpower,” Hongslo told the committee. “Its not as simple as some people may think.”
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