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Controversy swells over Kansas immigration bill

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Reporter / KCUR

Laura Ziegler is a reporter at KCUR in Kansas City, Mo.

The controversy over illegal immigration is pitting Republican against Republican and business against immigration hardliners in Kansas.

A coalition of business and farm advocates has proposed legislation to help some who are in the country without legal documents stay beyond expired visas in an effort to support the state’s meat and dairy industry.

Feedlots and dairy operations have depended on immigrant labor for years, but as companies have grown, and more states are cracking down on immigration, it’s been increasingly difficult to attract labor. The businesses are in the unusual situation of having more jobs than they can fill. Unemployment in some parts of the state hovers at half the state average.

The Republican Secretary of Agriculture in Kansas has spoken with the Department of Homeland Security about how the state might allow some of the immigrants to stay on. But Kansas' Secretary of State, an immigration activist who’s behind much of the tough immigration legislation around the country, is outraged.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach made voter fraud by illegal immigration the centerpiece of his 2010 campaign for Secretary of State. Despite data that minimized the problem of voter fraud by non-citizens, Kobach easily won as part of a statewide Republican sweep.

So it was no surprise when the state's chief election official ripped into the bill proposed by a coalition of businesses including The Kansas Farm Bureau and The Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

The legislation would authorize the state to help immigrants stay for a limited time if they’ve already been in the state longer than five years, have no criminal record and commit to study English.

Kobach said the bill is “a fantasy” for two reasons. He said “it’s legally impossible” because the federal government can’t grant waivers for undocumented workers to say in the state. Also, Kobach said, the bill’s a non-starter in this political atmosphere.

“There’s no way the Kansas legislature is going to pass a state-level amnesty,” Kobach said.

Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature are dominated by conservative Republicans who have spoken out against the plan.

But supporters say the legislation is neither “waiver” nor “amnesty.”

Eric Stafford, director of government affairs for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the legislation does not support citizenship for the immigrants. It helps them navigate the existing visa process.

“The difference between the current federal process and what we’re proposing is the state of Kansas would just simply support those individuals through the application process,” Stafford said.

Other states faced with the reality of agricultural economies sustained by undocumented workers are grappling with similar laws. Utah passed a guest-worker law that has been very controversial and is under attack. New Mexico, California, Georgia and Florida are studying similar laws.

But the Kansas proposal is being called unprecedented. Businesses would subsidize each worker with more than $5,000, with the money going to communities to support the social services and education for the workers.

Stafford said the federal government has pushed states to step in. He said the country can’t afford to deport all the undocumented workers, and they are valuable to the economies of many states.

“Part of the problem with the federal system today is a lack of authorization permits to support the number of workers across the country,” Stafford said.

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman has talked to officials from the Department of Homeland Security. Supporters say the plan is intentionally limited in time and scope.

But after coming under fire from legislators, Kobach and Gov. Sam Brownback, who said he does not support the move, a statement from the  Rodman’s office said no requests for waivers have been made and talks were informal.

This story was produced for KCUR's KC Currents.