It’s a long way from Forget-Me-Not Farms to the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.
But T.J. Curtis, a dairy farmer from Cimarron, Kan., drove the 300 miles because he’s desperate for workers for his family’s operation in western Kansas, where they want to hire another 75 people.
He was in Topeka recently to lobby for a bill that would establish a state program that would help him and other ag businesses in hiring undocumented workers who could legally stay in the state.
“We came to Kansas looking for opportunity for growth and expansion and processing facilities in southwest Kansas,” Curtis said. “We came here looking for opportunity, and for that opportunity, we need good, reliable help and workers.”
Curtis is a supporter of the Kansas Business Coalition, an unlikely league of farms, businesses and social advocates that is pushing for a law that would create a state-sanctioned work program benefitting illegal immigrants. The bill, which has not yet had a full debate in the House or Senate, has divided the state Republican Party, pitting the pro-business segment against the anti-illegal immigration foes.
Feedlots, dairies and other farms are clamoring for more help and traditional recruitment methods – like running help-wanted newspaper ads in eastern Kansas publications – hasn’t been effective. Earlier this year, state Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman, a Republican, stepped into the fray and asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a waiver that would allow companies to hire undocumented workers. He had no success with that effort.
“Difficulty recruiting and maintaining a stable, legal workforce, especially in the western Kansas, is a concern we have heard consistently at the Kansas Department of Agriculture,” said Chelsea Good, a spokeswoman for Rodman. “It was one of the primary issues raised by producers attending the Animal Agriculture Summit in Garden City earlier this year.”
The coalition’s bill calls on the state to identify agriculture and other industries that are suffering from labor shortages and to create a program that could connect participating companies with undocumented workers. The illegal immigrants who are eligible for the program must have lived in Kansas for five years and have a clean record.
The state then supports the worker who is seeking legal documentation with the federal government, which gives the immigrant more heft than say, a church or individual who traditionally serves as sponsors, said Allie Devine, a former state ag secretary who is the coalition’s leader.
“The reality is when a state stands forward and makes the statement, it’s a louder statement than an individual or a private group,” she said. “It sends that message that Kansas is not interested in deportation policies. We’re interested in work policies.”
Devine, a self-described lifelong Republican who worked in the first Bush administration, said she and others watched as Arizona passed one of the country’s toughest anti-illegal immigration bills, AB 1070, which was drafted by Kris Kobach, currently the Kansas Secretary of State. Kansas lawmakers have fought off Arizona-style bills here, but wanted to take a more pro-active lead and so they created what they hope will become a model for other states, she said.
The Kansas plan acknowledges that immigrants came to Kansas to settle here and are not as transient as the populations in border states, Devine said.
“These are people that we know in small towns. They’re not foreigners…they’ve been our friends. They’ve been with our children in school. We’ve known them,” she said.
Kobach predicts a swift death for the bill this year, saying it’s a “political fantasy” to think all Republicans will support such a plan and that it “doesn’t reflect the will of rural Kansans.” He likens the bill to an amnesty program, offering lawful presence in the U.S. when the immigrant is here illegally.
“I think the very fact that it was proposed has made a lot of people sit up and take notice and say, ‘Wow, this is Kansas, they’re proposing like that! We expect this in California, but not in Kansas,’” he said. “But I have to believe that the proponents of this bill realize its dead on arrival.”
Kobach also doesn’t buy the argument that the bill’s proponents use, comparing what has happened in other states that have passed tough anti-illegal immigration bills. For instance, in Georgia, where crops were rotting in the field last summer, officials predicted the ag industry lost $300 million. That justification doesn’t fly in a state where farming is done in row crops and harvested by machines, he said.
“I hate to answer with the old adage about comparing apples and oranges, but to a certain extent, the crops-rotting-in-the-field argument is comparing maybe not apples to oranges, but oranges to soybeans,” he said.
Those Republicans who support the plan, such as state Sen. Pete Brungardt, Republican from Salina, say they like the bill’s pragmatic approach to a problem the federal government has failed to address. The bill would also help the state better track who is here, he said.
“We could identify who’s here. We could get them properly licensed. We could get them IDs so law enforcement knows who they are stopping and talking to,” he said. “At the same time, we would have a path to employment that would withhold the proper taxes and give those people rights and protections as employees.”
The bill has not yet had a full debate in either the state House or the Senate and is pending in committees. Meanwhile, T.J. Curtis back at Forget-Me-Not Farms has jobs available -- $32,000 a year, with health care and retirement benefits.