Topeka Proposals for cracking down on illegal immigration in Kansas are foundering because of a split among majority Republicans in the state House, but GOP leaders faced pressure from some conservatives Wednesday to get legislation moving.
House Speaker Mike O'Neal, of Hutchinson, told fellow Republicans in a caucus meeting that he'd prefer to avoid a debate on immigration, suggesting it would be "bloody" and chiding some of them for pushing an issue that is "all about politics." He said if the House can't avoid a debate, he wants it to consider only a limited bill with widespread GOP support.
But agreement among Republicans appears to be elusive. Some conservatives want the House to debate proposals favored by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former law professor who helped draft tough immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona. Some rural Republicans back a proposal from influential business groups to create a program to place some illegal immigrants in hard-to-fill jobs in agriculture and other industries.
The House GOP's caucus came the day after the House Federal and State Affairs Committee tabled immigration legislation indefinitely. Chairman Steve Brunk, a Bel Aire Republican, wanted to vote on a measure requiring state agencies to use the federal E-Verify database to check employees' legal status, but members pushed both a broader E-Verify proposal and the business groups' idea, without settling on either.
"The issue isn't nearly as easy as what you are planning to put on your postcards," O'Neal told the GOP caucus, referring to election campaigns this year. "I've never promised a debate."
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Kansas has about 45,000 illegal immigrant workers, making up about 3 percent of its total workforce. Some Republicans said illegal immigration was a big issue in their campaigns in 2010 and that voters expect action.
"How do I respond to these people who are hammering me in my district?" said Rep. Leslie Osterman, a freshman Wichita Republican.
Rep. Anthony Brown, a Eudora Republican, told fellow Republicans that the House can't avoid discussing at least an E-Verify proposal with interest in immigration issues running so high.
And Rep. Owen Donohoe, a Shawnee Republican, another backer of tough immigration proposals, said: "I didn't run to come here to do the easy thing. I came here to do what's right."
Brunk's committee has before it proposals to require government contractors to use E-Verify to check employees' legal status and to make it a crime to knowingly harbor an illegal immigrant. Another measure would direct law enforcement officers to check the status of some people they stop.
Brunk pushed a proposal to impose the E-Verify requirement only for state agencies, and only for a year, so the state could test the effectiveness of the requirement. He said he hasn't given up on getting a modest E-Verify bill out of committee.
But House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican, said he wants to avoid "a food fight" among Republicans. Some Republicans believe any debate would inevitably move to broader proposals.
"It's going to look bad, and who's going to win?" said Dan Kerschen, of Belle Plaine. "The Democrats are going to sit over there and say, 'Look at them, they're imploding.'"