TOPEKA, Kan.: A coalition of business groups will propose Kansas start a new program to help some illegal immigrants remain in the state so they can hold down jobs in agriculture and other industries with labor shortages, coalition representatives disclosed.
The Kansas proposal also is notable because it complicates the debate over immigration issues in the home state of Kris Kobach, a former law professor who helped draft tough laws against illegal immigration in Alabama and Arizona. Kobach, known nationally for advising state and local officials across the nation on immigration issues, is secretary of state, the chief elections official in Kansas.
The proposal is likely to stir controversy in the Kansas Legislature and divide the Republican majority, some of whose members are pursuing proposals to crack down on illegal immigration. Representatives of the business coalition, which includes agriculture groups and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, provided a draft copy of their proposed legislation to The Associated Press ahead of its formal introduction in the House and Senate.
Supporters of the proposal acknowledge they’re trying to protect industries heavily reliant on laborers, particularly agriculture. But state officials and backers don’t have any hard numbers for how many jobs are in danger of going unfilled. Kansas has an estimated 45,000 illegal-immigrant workers.
“What it says about the debate is that states are tired of waiting,” said Wendy Sefsaf, the Immigration Policy Council’s spokeswoman. “There’s immigration legislation moving all the time, everywhere.”
The coalition spelled out details of its proposals only days after state Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman publicly discussed the possibility of getting a waiver from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allow agriculture businesses to hire illegal immigrants in jobs they’re having trouble filling.
The coalition’s representatives said their proposal would make a waiver unnecessary. And Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Chelsea Good said that while Rodman has spoken several times with federal officials about labor problems in agriculture, the agency hasn’t submitted a formal waiver request.
Backers of the proposal believe their new program would be helpful to commercial dairies and feedlots in western Kansas, as well as landscaping, roofing and some construction businesses. In December, unemployment rates in most of the western half of the state were less than 4 percent, well below the state figure of 5.9 percent.
“It’s a good starting point,” said state Senate Agriculture Chairman Mark Taddiken, a Clifton Republican. “We have a labor shortage in certain industries, agriculture being one of them, and we’re turning to solve that shortage problem.”
The new program proposed by the groups would create a pool of immigrant workers businesses could tap after the state certifies a labor shortage in their industries. The state would support individual workers’ requests from the federal government for authorization to continue working in the U.S., despite not being able to document that they are in the country legally.
“The key is, these are people that are in Kansas,” said Allie Devine, a Topeka attorney and former state agriculture secretary who lobbies for business owners on immigration policy. “We’re asking to keep those people here, let them remain and let them work.”