Kansas saw its Hispanic population grow by 59 percent over the past decade but continued to see a decline in rural areas, with 77 of its 105 counties losing residents since 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday.
Figures provided to state officials and obtained by The Associated Press prior to their public release counted 300,042 Hispanic residents in 2010, representing 10.5 percent of the state’s population. The 2000 Census found there were 188,252 Hispanic residents, 7 percent of the population.
Among those new residents is Juan Alejandre, the 36-year-old owner of one of Wichita’s Poblano Mexican Grill restaurants. He moved in 2002 from Colorado to Kansas, where he bought out his partner’s share in the restaurant.
“The opportunity here is a little bit better than the big cities,” Alejandre said. “The schools are better for the kids, and also the work that we have. We don’t have very much competition versus the big places.”
The state’s total population grew about 6 percent over the decade, to 2.85 million residents, up about 165,000 from the 2000 figure of 2.69 million
The continued growth in the Hispanic population comes as legislators are debating immigration issues. The Kansas House has a bill that includes a provision similar to an Arizona law enacted last year that requires law enforcement officers to check the status of people they stop who are suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Sharon Spauth, a Hispanic resident of Wichita who moved with her family in 1970 from Colorado, said that as other states pass anti-immigrant legislation more Hispanics are moving into Kansas. Many of these new Kansas residents are legal immigrants, but feel such state laws are a “slap in the face” to Hispanics and jeopardize their undocumented family members.
Spauth, who workers as a tax preparer, said she worries about similar efforts now underway in the Kansas Legislature.
“Whenever you pass anti-immigrant legislation, even though you may have a green card, you are threatening the whole family,” she said.
Kansas had an influx of Hispanic residents come into the state when Oklahoma passed restrictive anti-immigrant laws, and now people are coming in as Arizona, she said, noting three illegal immigrant families who attend her church moved in December to Kansas from Arizona as that state clamped down on illegal immigration.
Also driving the population boost is the economic downturn in other states. Kansas for decades has drawn new immigrant workers to its meatpacking plants in western Kansas.
“When other states have a lack of prosperity, we have waves of them that come into Kansas,” Spauth said.
In the isolated counties that have seen population growth, much of that can be attributed to the increase in the Hispanic population.
For example, Crawford County in southeast Kansas saw an increase of 892 residents and an increase in the Hispanic population of 852. The count went from 910 Hispanic residents in 2000 to 1,762 in 2010, a 94 percent increase.
In Seward County, the total population increased by 442 residents, but the Hispanic population grew by 37 percent, from 9,486 in 2000 to 12,990 in 2010. Next door in Stevens, the county increased by 261 residents overall, while the Hispanic population grew by 57 percent, from 1,187 in 2000 to 1,866 in 2010.
The same trend holds true in Cowley, Ford, Gray, Hamilton, Pratt, and Saline counties.
Mario Lopez, a lifelong Hispanic resident of Garden City who runs an insurance agency, said many of the new immigrants are coming to western Kansas to take jobs at the meatpacking plants located in the region.
“We, along with the cities of Dodge City and Liberal, are pretty much the beef triangle of the world,” Lopez said. “There is a lot of processing, cattle raising, things like that that go on in our community.”
Emira Palacios, immigrant rights initiative coordinator at Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, said she moved to Wichita in 1985 because she had a couple of brothers that lived there. She became a naturalized citizen in 2005. She came to Kansas to “look for the American dream, to look for better opportunities.”
Meanwhile, most Kansas counties saw their populations drop, continuing a trend seen in past decades as a state known for its agriculture becomes more urban and suburban.
Gov. Sam Brownback is proposing to create rural enterprise zones in counties that have seen a population decline of 10 percent or more over the past decade. People who move into those counties from outside Kansas wouldn’t have to pay individual income taxes for five years.
The proposal also includes a county option to help repay college loans of new residents, splitting the cost with the state.
The Senate has approved both proposals, though its version of the rural enterprise zones plan is more generous than Brownback’s proposal.