Kansas legislators heard concerns from law enforcement groups Wednesday about two immigration bills promoted by Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
The bills seek to enlist state and local officers in efforts to enforce federal immigration law. But the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association said they don’t have the resources to do that and they don’t want to be exposed to costly lawsuits if they wrongfully detain someone under the complex federal regulations.
Both groups said they weren’t consulted before the bills were introduced.
“It would be nice if folks sat down with us and said, ‘This is our proposal. How do we get there and how do we have law enforcement approval of this?’” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter. “It’s been just shoved down our throat, and then we have to come up here and testify.”
Kobach did not attend Wednesday’s hearing on the bills at the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. One of his aides, Moriah Day, testified in his place.
Day said Kobach was in Washington, D.C., for the winter meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
The bills in question had been enacted in other states and are effective in curbing illegal immigration, Day told committee members.
Penalties for sanctuary cities
Senate Bill 157 would require the Kansas Highway Patrol to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to essentially deputize some troopers to work on the department’s behalf in enforcing immigration law.
The highway patrol submitted written testimony saying there were several technical problems with the bill and, with the agency already short-staffed by 70 officers, diverting troopers to immigration enforcement would mean compromising on things the patrol does to keep roads safe.
Senate Bill 158 would remove all state funds from any city or county with “sanctuary” policies that shield immigrants from investigation by federal agents.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce joined cities and counties in opposing the bill. Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Chamber, said its broadness made it difficult for municipalities to know how to comply.
“Just last week the secretary of homeland security was asked what the definition of a sanctuary city was, and he said he has no idea,” Stafford said. “If our guy in charge doesn’t know, maybe somebody in the state of Kansas does?”
Easter said the bill targets a handful of counties, including his, based on a list compiled by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank he called a “partisan website.” The counties were included because they don’t automatically comply with requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain individuals for an additional 48 hours after their scheduled release from custody to give agents time to investigate their immigration status.
Easter said such “detainers” have led to costly legal battles in other states, including civil rights lawsuits in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
“For two years we’ve been labeled a sanctuary county because there’s court rulings out there that would have got me sued,” Easter said, “and I don’t feel like that’s a good use of taxpayer money.”
Easter said this week that his office will honor ICE detainer requests if they’re accompanied by a probable cause affidavit.
Wednesday’s hearing in a small Statehouse room was packed with people, most of them in opposition to the bills.
During the 90-minute hearing, the crowd heard emotional testimony from both sides.
A pair of 13-year-old Wichita girls, Lindsay Espinosa and Cynthia Bautista, testified that the bills would make people in Latino communities afraid to report crimes to police and split families like theirs with mixed immigration status.
Dennis Bixby said his 19-year-old daughter was killed in an auto collision in Basehor by a person who was in the country illegally and had been released from custody while awaiting a deportation hearing.
“I know you’re going to hear a lot of things about breaking up families today,” Bixby said. “Well, they broke up our family. She was our only child. There will be no grandchildren.”
Religious groups testified against the bills. Jarrett Meek, the pastor of an evangelical church in Kansas City, Kan., said that if the intent was to reduce crime, the measures were misguided, because crime has dropped as immigration to his area has increased.
“Immigrants are driving economic revitalization in our community,” Meek said. “It’s an exciting thing to happen and it’s an exciting place to live.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso.