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Immigration a quagmire for Kansas, Missouri

Eagle Topeka bureau

To Dick Fatherley, immigration reform is, if not easy, at least logical.

Immigrants break the law if they are here illegally. Businesses that exploit their cheap labor break the law. The law should be enforced.

"An invasion is an invasion," said the Wyandotte County man.

Not to Catholic Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. If illegal immigration is an invasion, he recently told lawmakers, it is "the strangest invasion in history, where the invaders clean our houses and harvest our crops."

In Missouri and Kansas, legislators started the year by proposing aggressive reforms to satisfy people such as Fatherley. Many lawmakers say the states have no choice but to address illegal immigration because Congress has not acted.

Now they find that every idea brings a raft of opponents and curious consequences.

Order college admissions officers to check the legal status of every applicant? They will tell you there are thousands.

Shut down businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants? Powerful industry groups say "no way."

Require police to crack down? Cops say they don't have the money.

Ask citizens to sign more paperwork at the motor vehicle office or the welfare line? Expect complaints.

As lawmakers weigh the burdens of strong enforcement against the cost of doing nothing, they also are looking toward the November elections. Satisfy one group, and you risk another's wrath.

Anti-immigration groups liked many of the initial ideas: keeping businesses from hiring illegal workers, enlisting local police in enforcement efforts and requiring more proof of citizenship from those seeking driver's licenses and other public benefits.

But the ideas ran into opposition from mom-and-pop businesses, chambers of commerce and other affected groups. All warned of dire consequences.

Lawmakers listened, and the bills are changing.

Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, spoke for many lawmakers recently when he summed up a bill in the Kansas House.

"It's not what I hoped it would be," he said, adding: "It could have been a lot worse."

Business concerns

Reg Robertson, the owner of Custom Lawn and Landscape in Olathe, said immigrants are the only people who are willing to work his seasonal jobs.

Robertson told Kansas lawmakers that last year not a single U.S. citizen answered his ads. He said he didn't knowingly hire illegal workers but worried he could lose his business license if new rules became law.

"There's 15 million undocumented workers in this country doing jobs Americans don't want to do," he said. "There's a lot of hysteria out there.... But people need to look at what the effects of all this could be."

Industry groups in both states objected to a mandate to run the names of new employees through a federal database called E-Verify and to tough penalties for hiring illegal workers.

E-Verify contains the name of every legal worker in the United States, but one Missouri lobbyist complained that false negatives, in which a legal worker is declared illegal, happen about 10 percent of the time.

Last week, Missouri Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, introduced a bill to require E-Verify only for companies that work on state-funded projects.

For other businesses, checking the database would be optional, though it would shield owners from liability should they hire illegal immigrants.

In Kansas, a Senate committee eliminated the mandate entirely, as well as any criminal penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Instead, the lawmakers endorsed tougher penalties for identity theft and human trafficking.

Supporters of the initial proposal say lawmakers are caving in to pressure. They vow to push for tougher rules when the bill goes to the Senate floor.

"This was set up to fail," said Sen. Peggy Palmer, an Augusta Republican who wrote the initial bill. "It's just a game to them."

A Kansas House committee supported a bill to mandate E-Verify starting in 2010, and then the state would do the database checks. Businesses still could lose their licenses if they repeatedly hire illegal workers.

Police powers

Police officials say they are too busy to round up illegal immigrants and go after robbers, too.

"Resources are tight already," said Lenexa Police Chief Ellen Hanson. "Something else would have to go."

Some Kansas lawmakers agreed that new requirements would be unrealistic and difficult for police to carry out. A Senate committee stripped the idea from its bill.

The House has not, though a committee revised a proposal to make police ask the citizenship of anyone they stop. Now, it would be only when an arrest is made.

But better enforcement is a priority for those who support aggressive reforms.

Ed Hayes is a former police officer who directs the Kansas and Missouri chapters of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that opposes illegal immigration. "We used to arrest illegal aliens when I was a cop," Hayes said. "But now we got millions. If we enforce the law, arrest employers and anyone who helps them (illegal immigrants), they'd go home."

Gov. Matt Blunt last year ordered the Missouri Highway Patrol to ask about the immigration status of anyone who was arrested, regardless of accent or appearance. In January, the patrol announced plans to deputize 25 troopers as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, enabling them to enforce federal immigration law and execute federal warrants.

Bills in the Missouri House would extend Blunt's order to all law enforcement agencies in the state. Another bill would mandate that people who are here illegally remain in jail until their cases are processed.

Public benefits

Proposals in both states would do more to ensure that illegal immigrants don't get public benefits such as food stamps, driver's licenses and, in Missouri, college admission.

Supporters note that federal law already prohibits illegal immigrants from getting many of these services. Following the law also would save money that could go to legal residents, they say.

"The taxpayers pay for this burden," said Palmer of Augusta, who estimated that illegal immigrants cost Kansas $235 million a year.

But critics warned of confusion and bureaucratic gridlock, and they wonder whether the efforts would succeed.

Two years ago, when the federal government required states to eliminate illegal residents from Medicaid rolls, Kansas began asking for proof of citizenship.

About 20,000 people could not offer the proper documentation and lost services, though state officials said nearly all were citizens and about half re-enrolled after finding the paperwork.

The process cost about $1 million and turned up one confirmed illegal immigrant, a young boy.

"Let us not squander our resources fighting those who are not our enemies," said Archbishop Naumann.

Missouri lawmakers initially proposed requiring admissions officers to check the citizenship of anyone applying to a state college or university. But college officials said the idea was not feasible.

Too many people apply, they said, and many never enroll.

A fix is in the works. The House last week approved a bill that would require the checks when a student enrolls.

Political fallout

People can expect more changes to legislation in both states. In Kansas, the first significant immigration bills go before the full Legislature this week.

While lawmakers may differ on the solutions, almost all agree that illegal immigration is a problem in the minds of many voters. And they say they expect to be graded by the voters come November.

Kansas Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said he had received 300 e-mails regarding illegal immigration -- all but one of them supported more enforcement. Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, said surveys of his constituents yielded similar results.

"Overwhelmingly, it's 'Get tougher immigration laws,' " Brown said.

Fatherley, a longtime radio personality, will be watching. Asked whether his votes for state legislators would be affected by their final product, he said: "You better believe it. Me and a lot of other people."

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