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Legislators tackle immigration

Eagle Topeka bureau

When illegal-immigration reform comes up on the House and Senate floor this week, the debate could get emotional.

"Anything could happen," said Rep. Nile Dillmore, a Wichita Democrat who has pushed for stiffer penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

Lawmakers will debate the issue, and there are "maybe 125 different ideas" in the House alone, he said.

On the Senate side, the debate could get acrimonious, Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, said.

"The debate is going to be very difficult," he said.

Last week, the Senate and House committees on Federal and State Affairs approved two bills.

Both chambers' bills eliminate provisions that required businesses to use the federal e-Verify database to ensure that new employees are in the country legally. In both, any business that uses e-Verify would be protected from penalties. After that the bills took different routes.

The Senate's measure, now Senate substitute for Senate Bill 458, would stiffen penalties for employment identity fraud, human trafficking and exploitation of illegal immigrants, and have the attorney general work with federal authorities on illegal-immigration investigations.

Among the provisions the Senate bill no longer includes were ones that blocked illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits or in-state tuition at state universities. It also would require law enforcement officers to check the citizenship or immigration status of every person they detained.

The changes resulted in the bill's original supporters voting against it.

Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who voted against the measure in committee, said the bill he originally supported now reflected the strength of the business lobby, but not most Kansans.

"Most Kansans strongly believe that employers should follow the law," he said.

He expected a vigorous debate on the Senate floor, which could take up the issue midweek.

State or federal issue?

Teresa Molina, a member of Sunflower Community Action, a nonprofit group that testified against the measures, said the state should be pushing for the federal government to handle the issue, not make its own rules.

"We don't think a piecemeal approach with 50 different states and 50 different types of legislation will help," she said.

Many of the rules proposed would create a climate of fear in the state and drive off people, Molina said.

Lawmakers have long argued that the state has to step in because of Congress' lack of action.

"We are the backstop here. The feds are not doing their jobs, so the individual states have to take up this task," Dillmore said.

House version of bill

The House version, House substitute for Senate Bill 329, retained most of its provisions targeting problems related to illegal immigration, including requiring law enforcement officers to ask about the citizenship and immigration status of everyone they arrest.

Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, D-Wichita, worried that posing the question during an arrest, instead of during any stop as the bill originally required, would disproportionately affect minorities.

"It is going to give law enforcement even more reason and opportunity to be more disparate in their stops and in the way they question the individuals," she said.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, sat on the House committee and worked on the revised business provisions. He said the House proposal went out of its way to protect legitimate businesses, but unlike the Senate bill, it included penalties for repeat offenders.

"This was the line in the sand for people like me. I'm not stepping back over that line," he said.

Ed Hayes, state director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, hopes that the final product will require businesses to use e-Verify and will be closer to the current House version than the Senate version.

"A watered-down version is better than nothing, but we really need a good bill in Kansas," he said.

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