Topeka Kansas legislators expect next year to join the growing list of states trying to keep illegal immigrants out and to discourage businesses from hiring them. One of the top legal minds in that movement is about to take office as Kansas' secretary of state, and he said he's ready to advise lawmakers.
But strong opposition is expected from the state's business community, particularly the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. Gov.-elect Sam Brownback also is cool to sweeping immigration proposals, preferring to focus on the state's budget woes and creating jobs.
The chamber's resistance creates an odd political dynamic in a Republican-leaning state with large GOP majorities in its Legislature and, soon, no Democrats in statewide elective office. Some legislators advocating the low-tax, small-government agenda favored by the chamber will be fighting the state's largest business group on immigration.
So far, the state chamber has prevailed. But advocates of get-tough measures like those instituted in Arizona believe they're tapping into national frustration with federal inaction and expect pressure to build on the Legislature after it opens its annual session and Brownback is sworn in Jan. 10.
"A few interest groups who are plugged into the legislative process can derail something," said Secretary of State-elect Kris Kobach, a law professor on leave who's gained national attention for working on immigration issues with legislators in other states. "But ultimately, I think you find that, in end, if the people of a state really want a statute, it eventually happens."
The Kansas Chamber has focused its opposition on proposals requiring employers to verify that workers are in the U.S. legally and fining companies or taking away their licenses if they hire illegal immigrants.
Chamber officials argue those laws can impose draconian punishments for unintentional mistakes. Kent Beisner, the Kansas Chamber's president and chief executive officer, also said if Kansas enacts rules and other states don't, Kansas will find it harder to attract and keep businesses.
"We want to be as competitive as we can be," Beisner said.
Many legislators saw the chamber as a big reason why Kansas' last attempt to enact a sweeping immigration law that included penalties for employers failed in 2008. The House and Senate were negotiating a final version but couldn't agree.
"There were at least a number of business interests that simply did not want to see any meaningful immigration reform bill that dealt with the employment issue," said state Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican who helped lead the push in 2008.
The nonprofit, Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 65,000 immigrants in Kansas were among the 11.1 million in the U.S. illegally in 2009. The center also estimates that 50,000 Kansas workers, about 3 percent of the total, are illegal immigrants. It says the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has dropped in the past few years.
State legislators nationwide have grown less willing to wait on the federal government to address the issue. The National Conference of State Legislatures said that in the first half of 2010, state lawmakers considered almost 1,400 immigration proposals — four times as many as five years ago.
Kobach helped write this year's law in Arizona empowering police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, a policy some Kansas lawmakers hope to enact in their state. He also was involved in drafting a 2008 Missouri law that penalizes businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Kinzer said he and other legislators are interested in not only those measures, but also repealing a state law that gives some illegal immigrants a break on tuition at state universities and colleges. And Kobach campaigned successfully on a promise that he'll seek a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and proof of citizenship when they register to vote for the first time in a new place.
Groups providing services and advocating for immigrants worry about how such proposals would hurt families with some members in the U.S. legally and others illegally. They argue legislators would do better to provide immigrants with help in gaining citizenship.
"We have short-term memories about the contributions of immigrants to this country," said Mary Lou Jaramillo, president and CEO of El Centro Inc., a Kansas City, Kan.-based social service and advocacy group.
Brownback has endorsed Kobach's voter ID and proof-of-citizenship. But he said other immigration measures adopted elsewhere are still being challenged in court.
"I don't think we should be going at it — going at those areas that are in the middle of litigation," he said during a recent interview
Meanwhile, the chamber's resistance is important because it's a major player in state politics. The chamber and its political action committee have reported spending more than $1.1 million on lobbying and campaign-related activities in the past six years.
One vice president and lobbyist, Jeff Glendening, is a former member of the state House majority leader's staff. A former lobbyist, Rachelle Colombo, left the House majority leader's staff to join the chamber and then earlier this month became chief of staff to House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.
And, of course, lawmakers have listened to its arguments in the past.
"Immigration should be resolved at the federal level," Beisner said. "It hasn't been addressed there, and I think that's where it needs to be addressed."