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New state law on human smuggling raises concerns in the Hispanic community

Salud + Bienestar

Community advocates are calling for awareness of a new law that has vague language which could target mixed-status households.

The Kansas legislature passed a new law it says will help crack down on human smuggling — but many in the Hispanic community are afraid of what it means for them.

In Wichita, dozens of people gathered recently at Evergreen Community Center for a presentation that explained how the law could affect them. Many of the families were afraid of losing their relatives due to how the new law vaguely defined human smuggling.

“Personally, it hurts me to see what’s happening because I was also [undocumented],” said Myrna Muniz, a Wichita resident who attended the meeting. “I have friends and many acquaintances that I know who will suffer because of what’s happening, and they’re afraid.”

Human smugglers are defined by three requirements under the recently passed bill:

  • By intentionally giving shelter or transportation to someone who they know, or should’ve known, was undocumented.
  • Benefiting financially or receiving something of value.
  • Know, or should’ve known, that the person is likely being exploited for the financial gain of another.

The law fails to describe how someone should have known a person’s citizenship status, workplace environment, or what “something of value” is.
However, should a person be found guilty of the charges, they could face prison time of up to 10 and a half years.

Community advocates say that the law is redundant because of an existing 2012 law that criminalizes human smuggling.

The only difference between the two laws, advocates say, is the wording in the previous bill regarding the clear intent of the alleged smuggler to benefit from the exploitation of an undocumented person.

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill earlier this year, saying the law's vague language over-criminalizes Kansans and was a product of a rushed process. She also says that it could leave the state open to expensive lawsuits.

The state legislature overrode the veto.

Proponents said that people being smuggled are subject to abuse through a loophole in the 2012 law and the new bill would close that loophole.

Monica Vargas-Huertas is a labor and immigration law attorney. She broke down the three requirements in the bill and dispelled some misconceptions.

She said that people often think that giving someone who’s undocumented a ride or a place to stay would designate them as a human smuggler.

But the act of sheltering or receiving something of value from someone who’s undocumented in itself is not criminal, according to the law. The person needs to be exploited for it to be considered an illicit activity.

Someone asked Vargas-Huertas about a mixed-status household where a member of the household who is undocumented contributes to the rent while they work at a job where they’re exploited.

Under the wording of the bill, the scenario could be considered a crime. But because there are no legal precedents, it’s hard to predict whether courts will prosecute, Vargas-Huertas said.

It’s scenarios like these that make people in the Hispanic community, like Wichitan Reyna Ahana Dominguez, nervous. According to the 2020 Census, more than 72,000 people identified as Latino/Hispanic in Wichita.

“We´re afraid that a police officer will stop us and ask us for more information that sometimes a lot of people don´t have, but in my case I do,” she said. “But the problem is that we want there to be a solution … for this law, right? We didn't agree for this to happen.”

The Wichita Police Department said it would not arrest someone solely based on their citizenship status under the new law. It would act only if another crime was committed.

While the law will go into effect on July 1, awareness of the law and engagement in the community could help prevent future laws that would negatively affect the Hispanic community, said Carla Rivas D’Amico, executive director of the Kansas Hispanic & Latino American Affairs Commission.

“A lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about politics, and I understand that, truly,” D’Amico said.

“But the problem in this and many other countries is that people don’t talk about these issues and when people don’t talk about these issues is when democracy falls and laws like these pass.”

¿Quiere leer esto en español? Déle click aquí.

Tadeo Ruiz is the 2023 Korva Coleman Diversity in Journalism intern. He is currently a journalism student at the University of Missouri specializing in radio and audio storytelling. Reach him at sandoval@kmuw.org.