Kansas: Bellwether of the New Shape of GOP Immigration Reform

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immigration photoIn January, the local Kansas paper Wichita Eagle anticipated that “at least four bills to crack down on illegal immigrants are expected in Kansas this year.” Given the overwhelming majority of Republican politicians in the Kansas legislature, the Tea Party-leanings of about one-fourth of the House, and the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, predictions of new anti-immigration bill proposals would seem secure. Kansas’ well-known anti-immigrant secretary of state, Kris Kobach, has promised to introduce legislation to enforce the federal E-Verify system, which checks the eligibility of employees to work in the United States; to increase local enforcement of strict federal immigration laws; and to bar undocumented immigrants from accessing public benefits.

Yet recently, cracks have started to form in the formerly unified conservative immigration platform. A growing number of conservative politicians–and the business coalitions which bankroll their campaigns–are demonstrating an interest in changing their party’s stance on immigration reform. Former political heavyweights are losing influence and unexpected alliances are forming, potentially providing inroads for advocacy groups to pass more far-reaching, pro-immigrant reforms.

However, Kobach and his supporters have not been entirely neutralized; likewise, alliances between human rights groups and agribusiness may prove ultimately untenable. Suman Raghunathan’s new Public Eye article on the GOP’s internal divisions around immigration presents a cautiously optimistic analysis of the national immigration debate, focusing primarily on Kansas, whose politics of immigration “may very well reverberate nationally, helping shape U.S. immigration policy for decades to come.”

As Raghunathan points out, the apparent change in Republican attitudes came as something of a surprise, given Kansas lawmakers’ historical trajectory. Best representative of this trend was Kris Kobach, who briefly seemed the embodiment of the GOP’s platform on immigration, after co-authoring Arizona’s extremely regressive Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.  The law, later exported to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah, was viewed as a great success and Kobach was even made an “informal advisor” to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. As the election neared, however, the Romney campaign was already trying to distance itself from Kobach as the majority of Latinos rejected Romney.

While Kobach continues on his seemingly self-destructive anti-immigrant campaign, other Kansas politicians are also trying to play a more immigrant-friendly hand. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Kansas governor Sam Brownback. In many ways a staunch conservative, Brownback is famed for his inflexible anti-tax, antiabortion, and antigovernment stances. However, he co-sponsored the Senate’s immigration reform bill in 2006 and recently said of immigration policy, that “I think it’s primarily a federal issue”—a direct rebuttal of Kobach’s state-level anti-immigrant approach.

Brownback has long been an ally of Michael O’Neal, current President and CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and former Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives.  Raghunathan describes O’Neal as instrumental in organizing the state’s business leaders to discredit Kobach and urging the U.S. Congress to broach immigration reform. In 2012, the Kansas Business Coalition for Immigration Reform, a coalition of business groups that includes the Chamber of Commerce, introduced legislation that would have allowed undocumented residents to legally work in the state.

State and national immigrant rights and civil liberties groups can offer only limited support for such reforms. As Raghunathan points out, “business interests’ preoccupation with guaranteeing a steady stream of low-wage workers has resulted in widespread worker exploitation in the past.” The question, then, is whether progressive advocates can leverage this GOP division and transform it into long-lasting, positive change.  The results remain to be seen, but Raghunathan is right that Kansas could serve as a bellwether for the new shape of immigration debates.

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