Experts: Kansas dependent on immigrant labor, foreign trade

Allie Devine, left, an attorney and former Kansas secretary of agriculture, and Laurie Minard, vice president of human resources at Garmin International Inc. in Olathe, say Kansas depends on foreign immigration for both low-skill and high-skill labor.

At a time when global free trade agreements and the influx of immigrant labor into the United States are both highly charged political issues, experts say the Kansas economy is heavily dependent on both.

That was one of the key messages Thursday at the annual Kansas Economic Policy Conference, held on the campus of the University of Kansas. The event was sponsored by KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research.

Alexandre Skiba, a former KU economics professor who now teaches at the University of Wyoming, said that’s especially true in rural western Kansas where the meatpacking industry depends on immigrant labor, and the entire agriculture industry generally depends on access to foreign markets.

“Immigrants in rural areas replace the loss of labor due to the decline in native-born population,” he said, referring to the general population shift from rural to urban areas that has been occurring for decades.

At the same time, he said, foreign exports account for a significant portion of the state’s cereal grain and meat production, with a large amount of those exports going to countries with which the United States has free trade agreements, namely Canada and Mexico.

Currently, the Trump administration is engaged in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. It also is trying to secure funding for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and it has clamped down on allowing refugees to enter the U.S. from other countries.

“I think we have an overabundance of nationalism,” said Allie Devine, an attorney and former Kansas secretary of agriculture. “I think that it is being driven partially factually. Partially, it’s rallying the troops, so to speak.”

Meanwhile, Laurie Minard, vice president of human resources at Garmin International Inc., an Olathe-based company that specializes in GPS technology for a wide range of industries, said her company is equally dependent on access to an international workforce, and she said the current political climate in the U.S. is hard on that business.

“We’re doing all the research and development in Olathe,” Minard said. “Again, we just can’t find enough engineers. We are a global company. We have offices in 30 different countries. We make products in other languages. It’s really part of our DNA. We really look for people and that diversification to help us innovate and make the best products available.”

Garmin was at the center of a national discussion about the current backlash against immigration in February when one of its employees, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot and killed in an Olathe bar, and another employee, Alok Madasani, was injured. A witness reportedly said the shooter yelled “Get out of my country” before opening fire.