Wichita Hispanics and black leaders joined forces Friday to try to block anti-immigration efforts expected to be mounted in the Kansas Legislature next year.
In a joint meeting, the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission and the Kansas African American Affairs Commission agreed to come up with a comprehensive plan to defeat anti-immigration action in the state.
"We are going to be on the defensive," said Rep. Delia Garcia, D-Wichita.
Immigration was one of several minority issues where the two state government advisory boards found some common ground. The groups also agreed to work together on health care reform in Kansas and an economic development plan to revise the state procurement processes and give minority business owners a greater share of government contracts.
"We are all in the same boat," said Steve Cisneros, KHLAAC executive director. "We are not competing for jobs - we are competing for who is going to get their unemployment check first."
The group listened to state agency officials and legislators during a daylong meeting. Repeatedly the issue of immigration crept into most of their comments, even if only briefly.
One of the backers of that immigration legislation, Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, told the joint meeting immigration issues were very high on her agenda since tough anti-immigration measures in neighboring states like Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri would send illegal immigrants into Kansas.
Landwehr said she is looking at fashioning a Kansas statute similar to that of Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act In Oklahoma, slated to go into effect on Nov. 1, has been hailed as one of the toughest among the states on illegal immigration. It will block undocumented workers from getting jobs by imposing tighter screening procedures on employers and make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain public benefits.
Not everyone agreed with the idea.
"It is the question of oppression," said KHLAAC member Robert Vinton.
But, after Landwehr left, Cisneros praised her in front of the board for speaking to the two minority groups on the immigration issue, saying they could work with her on areas they could agree upon, including the need for all workers to be paid fair wages.
Cisneros also noted Landwehr is not interested in repealing the in-state tuition given to immigrants regardless of immigration status, but one of the items she wanted included in the proposed measure is a provision penalizing Kansas landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.
Crime also discussed
Among other concerns shared by Kansas blacks and Hispanics is the disproportionate number of minorities, particularly black and Hispanic juveniles, in the criminal justice system.
Russell Jennings, Kansas commissioner of juvenile justice, told participants black youths are 2.7 times more likely than white youths to be arrested, while Hispanics are 1.8 times more likely to be arrested than non-Hispanic whites.
Though he didn't have comparable data on conviction rates, Jennings said black juveniles were 2.47 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, while Hispanic youths were 2.03 more likely than non-Hispanic whites.
Minorities also appear to serve longer sentences than whites.
Jennings cautioned the numbers do not compare the disparities according to the seriousness of the crimes and emphasized the data should not be interpreted as an indication of prejudice by law enforcement.
The disparities, he said, are because juvenile offenders tend to come from impoverished homes and neighborhoods as well as single-parent homes where there usually are no meaningful adults in their lives. Jennings said local mentoring programs would help address the problem.
The racial disparities carried through to the adult prison system in Kansas.
Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz told the group while blacks make up just over 5 percent of the state's population, they represent 33 percent of the inmates in Kansas prisons. Hispanics fall into a more proportionate rate, at nearly 8 percent of the state's population and 9 percent of prison inmates.
Whites make up slightly more than 80 percent of the population and 55 percent of prison inmates.
Werholtz also noted that a quarter of the prison population comes from Sedgwick County, with the largest concentration of those inmates in the 67214 ZIP code, a neighborhood in the central northeast corner of Wichita.