Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist (left), president of Americans for Tax Reform, talks to state Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, after speaking to the Kansas Business Coalition for Immigration Reform in Topeka. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
One of the most interesting stories I got to cover last year was a plan that sought to make a state-sanctioned work program for illegal immigrants in Kansas. It brought up so many issues: immigration, farm worker rights, and how the business community sometimes needs social workers.
Feedlots, dairies and big farms have complained for years about the lack of workers. So an unlikely coalition of business and social interests tried to get the legislature to create a program that would allow undocumented workers who have been here for five years to connect with a business, which in turn, along with the state, would help the immigrant get documentation.
The effort failed last year, but it got a rather rousing resurrection on Wednesday when conservative lightning rod Grover Norquist endorsed it at a meeting of the Kansas Business Coalition for Immigration Reform in Topeka.
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is much more known for his anti-tax activism than his immigration beliefs. In addition to announcing his support of the Kansas plan, Norquist asked the crowd of business leaders to remember that such plans are pro-business and pro-growth.
Norquist urged the coalition members, which includes the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau, commodity groups and immigration advocates, to speak up in favor of immigration reform because it reflects a core principal of the Republican Party. Former Presidents Reagan and both Bush administrations were pro-immigration, he said, and he had hoped to work on the issue if GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had won.
Those voices of the anti-immigrant movement are “very few but very loud,” Norquist said, and that issue “sadly and dishonestly” became identified with conservatives. Lead the “right way,” he said, which means respecting immigrants and asking for their vote.
“You can’t ask for somebody’s vote while either insulting or threatening them, their friends and their neighbors,” he said.
Norquist urged the legislators to lead the way on immigration with a plan that is pro-business, pro-growth and offers respect for immigrants. Already, Utah has a law that creates a way for undocumented workers to stay in the state legally and that could be a model for Kansas, he said.
In a unique comparison, Norquist likened current U.S. immigration law to the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit enacted in the 70s. Most people broke that law, too,” he said.
“We had a speed limit that wasn’t reasonable. What we did do eventually is to change the speed limit so it matched reality. We need to have an immigration law that matches reality,” he said.
There are detractors, of course. Namely, Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who wrote the now infamous Arizona law that is one of the country’s toughest anti-immigration laws. He fought the plan last year and is expected to offer more anti-illegal immigration measures this year.
Allie Devine, a former state Ag Secretary who worked in the first Bush administration, heads up the coalition. She said her group is still working on the issue and may make some changes in the original plan.
“We think we need work authorization. We need a lawful presence (for undocumented workers),” she said. “We’d like to build on the bill and if the issue comes up were going to continue to push for it.”