Topeka As an immigration lawyer in Overland Park, Mira Mdivani sees the heartbreaking stories every day.
Employers, workers and newlyweds stream into her office full of hope wanting to become U.S. citizens.
When told they face conflicting laws, years of delays, lengthy separations from their families and, for many, absolutely no chance of attaining citizenship, they often leave dumbfounded, depressed and desperate, she said.
Mdivani told state lawmakers last week that the federal immigration law was unfair, confusing and not based on the reality of a country that depends on immigrant labor but allows relatively few immigrants in legally.
"What we have here is built-in illegal immigration by law," Mdivani told the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.
Her remarks echoed a common theme voiced by experts appearing before the committee: Illegal immigration is a tough problem, and state attempts to address it often are misguided.
Committee Chairman Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, said he scheduled the informational hearings in response to numerous bills in the Legislature to try to crack down on illegal immigration.
"The public is frustrated," said Sheri Steisel, federal affairs counsel with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And much of that frustration is directed toward the federal government's inability to control its borders, Steisel said.
This has resulted in an explosion of bills in state capitals nationwide, including Topeka.
From 1999 to 2004, there were 50 to 100 bills filed each year in state legislatures dealing with immigration, she said. That number increased to 300 bills in 2005 and at least 570 bills last year.
She said the major focus of the legislation has been trying to stem illegal immigration and integrating those who already are here into society. But, she said, states are limited on what they can do in an area that is under the federal government's control.
On the federal level, she said immigration reform remains a priority for President Bush, but the House and Senate are far apart in resolving differences in their proposals.
If the sides don't reach an agreement by this summer, she said, the politics of the upcoming presidential campaigns could stifle any progress.
"I think it's fair to say that this issue becomes too hot to handle," she said.
At the workplace
Mdivani said economists say the United States needs 3.5 million new foreign workers each year, but the government grants only 66,000 work-related visas annually for temporary workers.
That leads to illegal immigration "or we should close all our factories and send them to China," she said.
In Kansas, Republican and Democratic officials have called for a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants, but Mdivani said many times well-intentioned employers are uncertain of the rules and sometimes trapped by them.
"Employers are between a rock and a hard place on immigration compliance," she said.
Brungardt said the purpose of his committee hearings was to educate members of the Legislature on the many problems with immigration law.
"It's a lot harder than what the election rhetoric would indicate," Brungardt said. "It touches a lot more areas than the public thinks."
Melinda Lewis, policy and research director for El Centro, a Hispanic advocacy group in the Kansas City area, said the proposals before Kansas lawmakers might sound good but fail to address a problem.
For example, she said, a measure to require voters to provide photo identification before their ballot is counted is aimed at illegal immigrants, although no instances of illegal immigrant voters have been uncovered.
Lewis said she thought the Senate committee hearings opened lawmakers' eyes to the unintended consequences of some legislation.
"I'm encouraged to see them take this kind of approach," she said.
An example of an unintended consequence, officials said, is a new federal law that requires all Medicaid applicants to provide documentation of citizenship and identification.
Since then, nearly 24,000 people have fallen off the program designed to serve the poor and needy, officials said. And most of those people probably are legal and eligible citizens who simply cannot come up with the documents in a timely manner, they say.
Andrew Allison, deputy director of the Kansas Health Policy Authority, said when poor, sick people can't access coverage because of paperwork problems, "that may ultimately wind up costing the health care system more in the long run."