Kansas Faces Opposition To Illegal Immigrant Law

12:00AM Mar 02, 2012
( )

AUDIE CORNISH: In Kansas, a coalition of conservative farm businessmen and liberal social advocates is pushing for an unusual law, one that would create a state-sanctioned work program benefitting illegal immigrants. Peggy Lowe, of Harvest Public Media, reports that their fiercest opponent is the Kansas politician who wrote Arizona's tough immigration law.

PEGGY LOWE: It's a long way from Forget-Me-Not Farms to the Kansas state capitol. But T.J. Curtis drove the 300 miles because he needs more workers for his family's dairy farm in the far western part of the state.

Curtis' family moved their operation to Kansas from New Mexico a few years ago and now wants to hire another 75 people. So he's here to lobby for a bill that sets up a state program that would help him in hiring undocumented workers who could legally stay in Kansas.

T.J. CURTIS: We come to Kansas looking for opportunity for growth and expansion, and processing facilities in southwest Kansas. And so, we came here looking for opportunity. And for that opportunity, we need good, reliable help and workers.

PEGGY LOWE: Curtis is not alone. Kansas feed lot, farm and dairy companies are so desperate for workers that state ag secretary Dale Rodman, a Republican, asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a waiver that would allow companies to hire illegal immigrants. That effort's going nowhere.

So, a group called the Kansas Business Coalition proposed another option. The coalition's program would connect participating companies with undocumented workers who have been in Kansas at least five years and have a clean record, helping them get work authorizations.

Officially, the state steps forward to vouch for an immigrant's application to the federal government to become a legal resident.

ALLIE DEVINE: The reality is, when a state stands forward and makes a statement, it's a louder statement than an individual or a private group. And it sends the message that Kansas is not interested in deportation policies. We're interested in work policies.

PEGGY LOWE: That's Allie Devine, the coalition's leader. She's the former state agriculture secretary and self-described lifelong Republican who worked in the first Bush administration. She and others have fought off Arizona-style bills in the past because she says the Hispanic population in Kansas is much different than that border state.

ALLIE DEVINE: These are people that we know in small towns. They're not foreigners. They are people. They've been our friends. They've been with our children in school. We've known them.

PEGGY LOWE: Case in point, Rudolfo Torres(ph).

RUDOLFO TORRES: (Speaking foreign language).

PEGGY LOWE: Torres is attending a tutoring session, helping his eight-year-old daughter, Mariella, with her math assignment. The two of them are at Amistad e Fe, Fellowship in Faith, a ministry of the Kansas area United Methodist Church. Torres has been in Topeka for 19 years and already has his citizenship. He's thought about moving to other states, but he stays here because there are so many jobs.

RUDOLFO TORRES: I work in Kansas more, talk to the boss and they say, come back tomorrow.

PEGGY LOWE: Fighting the coalition is another Republican, Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who helped write the Arizona law. Kobach's run similar plans to the state legislature, only to be beat. This year's no different and it appears a series of tough anti-illegal immigration plans he authored won't make it to full debate. But Kobach predicts the same fate for the coalition's bill, saying it's a political fantasy to think that Republicans will support it. He also doesn't buy the pleas of the agribusiness leaders who say they are in dire need of workers. That doesn't fly in a state where farming is done in row crops, he says, and harvested by machines.

KRIS KOBACH: I hate to answer with the old adage about comparing apples and oranges, but to a certain extent, the crops rotting in the field argument is comparing - maybe not apples to oranges, but oranges to soybeans.

PEGGY LOWE: As it stands, the bill is pending in committee and the state GOP faces a tough internal battle over immigration policy in a state where Republicans control both the House and Senate. So, dairy farmers like T.J. Curtis will have to continue looking hard for workers to run Forget-Me-Not Farms.

For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.