Topeka — Illegal immigration has become the hottest issue in the governor's race, and Democratic incumbent Kathleen Sebelius argued Monday that Republican challenger Jim Barnett is misleading voters.
Sebelius said the federal government must adopt a comprehensive border security plan to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from Mexico, while the state could - and is - cracking down on businesses that knowingly hire such immigrants.
She also criticized Barnett for continuing to suggest that the state could grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, saying that issue was settled by a federal law last year.
Barnett spokesman Rodger Woods said states can make themselves less attractive to illegal immigrants and questioned Sebelius' commitment to punishing errant businesses.
In a fundraising letter earlier this month, Barnett wrote: "Under Kathleen Sebelius, a 'welcome to Kansas' sign has been hung out for illegal immigrants."
"Kathleen Sebelius has joined forces with liberals who control the media," the letter said. "Together, they are working in lockstep to create a false image of Sebelius as a moderate to conservative leader."
Barnett, a state senator from Emporia, began raising immigration as an issue during his campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Melinda Lewis, policy and research director for El Centro, a Hispanic advocacy group in the Kansas City area, said she doubts the issue would be so prominent had Barnett lost the primary.
"Senator Barnett, in particular, has decided this is an issue he could use to his advantage," she said. "He's hung his hat on it."
Sebelius said she does view immigration as a serious issue and she supports efforts to heighten border security. She has embraced a proposal to build stretches of fence along the border, so that the United States can concentrate resources at a limited number of entry points.
"I think it's important that we identify and recognize what we can and can't do at the state level, what we can and should do at the federal level," Sebelius told reporters Monday. "And those lines are being intentionally, I think, blurred, not only in Kansas but around the country."
Woods acknowledged that the federal government's response "is a huge part of the equation."
Barnett said last week he would seek more training for state and local law enforcement to crack down on the flow of illegal immigrants coming through Kansas.
He has been most vocal about the 2004 legislation Sebelius signed to allow some illegal immigrants to pay lower tuition rates normally reserved for legal Kansas residents at state universities, community colleges and vocational colleges.
"But individual states with their own policies, be it policies like giving driver's licenses or in-state tuition, can either do things to attract additional immigration, or they can do things to make their states less attractive," he said.
Sebelius and her staff have noted that immigrants qualify for the lower rates only if they've lived in Kansas at least three years and seek or promise to seek legal status. Last fall, 221 students took advantage of the provision.
Lewis said "harping so much" on the law would distract Kansans from taking steps that would have a meaningful effect on immigration.
As for the driver's license issue, Barnett has noted Sebelius' past support for the idea of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain them. However, of late, she has noted that under a 2005 federal law, the federal government plans to stop treating a driver's license as valid identification if a state issues them to illegal immigrants.
"I think that my opponents here have to get honest with the Kansas public," Sebelius said. "This debate doesn't exist."
Woods noted that last month, California's Legislature approved a proposal to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, despite the federal law and opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Finally, there is the issue of cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor, said for years, policymakers around the nation have shown little enthusiasm for the idea.
"It was never worth it to buck corporate America, by taking away their flow of cheap labor, and consumer America, by making their prices go up," Beatty said.
This year, legislators took a step, enacting a law to penalize businesses that deliberately misclassify employees as independent contractors, avoiding tax and legal requirements. Enforcement began in July.
"We have employers - no doubt at all - in Kansas and around this country who are intentionally hiring illegal workers and exploiting them - and exploiting the system," Sebelius said.
But Woods said Sebelius could have done more, sooner.
"This isn't an issue that she's had any leadership on in the last three years," Woods said.