Many in Kansas anxiously await outcome of immigration policy reform

Brent D. Wistrom

GARDEN CITY — Cornelius Peters sits in the lobby of his lawyer’s office.

He’s a burly 40-year-old, wearing farming clothes that haven’t been in the field yet. But it’s still morning, and he’ll probably have to trudge half a mile through a muddy field later, climbing up and down irrigation pipes until he finds a leak in the system. It’s tough work that supports a family of six.

Peters is one of more than 11 million immigrants in the country facing an uncertain future as Congress debates a fix.

Peters tells his story nervously.

The Mexican border state he moved away from is drug cartel territory now, he said. And even when he drove his family of five to the United States more than 10 years ago and the cartels operated more quietly, there was virtually no opportunity for a job that could support his family. Small farms, tiny pay.

He’s one of the tens of thousands of people who came to southwest Kansas for a tough but good-paying job, overstayed a visa and became part of the sprawling illegal immigration issue that the nation has faced for decades.

And now, with six kids, he’s among many immigrants who hope for a bill like the one the Senate has already approved to become law, giving him a shot at legal residency and maybe even citizenship in a decade or so if he has a clean background and pays thousands in fines.

“I would say probably 80 percent of workers out there would like to have that,” he said with a Canadian accent. “About 20 percent have papers, about 80 percent don’t. There’s a lot of them out there that need it bad.

“Sometimes it seems that up there in the government, they don’t know what’s going on out here.”

Lawmakers say they know what’s going on, but for more than a decade, they haven’t found a solution they can agree on.

Kansas may seem like a small cog in the complicated, controversial debate over how to create a functional immigration system. It doesn’t pop out in any big studies as a top destination for those who immigrate illegally, and the state’s population is still decidedly white – 87 percent, 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

But as politicians in Washington, D.C., debate a fix, there’s a lot at stake on the dusty ranches, sprawling farms, noisy construction sites and bustling kitchens across the state. Some 65,000 people are living in Kansas without documentation, and thousands of businesses depend on them, whether they know it or not.

A new report from the Obama administration, which draws on several previous studies, shows more worker visas and a pathway to citizenship could boost the state’s economic output by $240 million and create nearly 3,000 jobs next year.

Opponents, including several Kansas leaders, say border security should come before a path to citizenship, that those who came to the U.S. illegally should return to their home countries and that the plan backed by the Senate and Obama doesn’t do enough to prevent future illegal immigration growth.

“We actually have very good laws, they just aren’t enforced,” said Kris Kobach, a leading anti-illegal immigration advocate and Kansas secretary of state.

Although thousands of people who immigrated illegally live in Wichita and other cities across the state, the dynamic is most pronounced in southwest Kansas, where jobs at meatpacking plants, farms and ranches have attracted new immigrants for years.

A difficult choice

Peters’ phone keeps buzzing in his pocket. But he ignores it and continues his story.

He says his grandparents were among many German Mennonite families who migrated from Canada to northern Mexico to keep their cultural traditions and continue home schooling on their own terms. But Peters didn’t learn much Spanish, and his kids never really came to understand Mexico or its culture.

With no solid work, Peters moved his family to southwest Kansas, where dozens of other Mennonite families from Mexico had already established themselves. At the time, crossing the border without papers was simple – since then, fences have gone up, ID checks are almost certain, and the Border Patrol has more than doubled its numbers.

Peters now has a temporary work permit while his case inches through the system.

“I worry every day about what could happen,” he said. “It’s really hard if you think about your family growing up here and not knowing anything else. They don’t want to leave, they want to stay.

“Sometimes, if I talk to my kids about it, they say they don’t want to talk about it because they get too stressed out. They don’t want to think about it.”

The phone in his pocket hums again.

Peters estimates that 80 percent of his fellow fieldworkers lack proper papers for long-term work in the United States. Pretty much anyone you talk to in Garden City acknowledges many people are probably working under false Social Security numbers. But if they have proper documents, though perhaps fake, they’ll get hired.

Southwest Kansas is worker-hungry. Its unemployment rates hover at 3 to 4 percent, which is low even in a state with rates significantly lower than the national rate.

But much of the work is grueling. Farmers and ranchers talk about 18-hour days, relentless heat and nagging injuries.

But for people like Peters, it’s good work to support their families.

His boss tried to sponsor him to become a resident, but he and his lawyer say he probably needs a family member to sponsor him.

“They may have a U.S. citizen child, but she’s 6 years old,” lawyer Michael Feltman said. “Once she turns 21, she can file for the parents. But until then, it’s really difficult.”

So they’re fighting his case based on him having a child who is a U.S. citizen. They have to prove she’d face an exceptional and unusual hardship if her father were forced out of the country.

Feltman said he started a petition with the whole community to show the contributions Peters and his family have made to the area. But they have to wait, and their best prospect is federal reform.

Peters’ dad had a heart attack two weeks ago, but if Peters goes back to Mexico to see him, he triggers a 10-year penalty, drastically delaying his case again. A visitors visa isn’t easy to get, Feltman said.

“I’d like to go see him,” Peters said. “It makes me sad.”

Feltman just shakes his head in frustration and advises Peters that he needs to see the case through if he wants to ensure a legal life for his family in America.

Peters said if he did get on the path to citizenship that the Senate approved and leaders are bantering about in D.C., he would simply keep his job as an irrigation pivot worker and tell his kids, ranging in age from 6 to 21, that they can chase their dreams in America without the fear of starting over in Mexico, which is virtually a foreign country for most of his family.

“You just sit and wait,” he said. “You wait for politicians, you wait for your case, you wait for your future.”

Peters and his pal Frank Koethler, who immigrated from Mexico and became a citizen, leave Feltman’s office and head out to the parking lot.

There’s work to do.

Southwest Kansas

Immigration is a touchy subject almost anywhere. But it’s a little different in Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal and the rest of southwest Kansas, where people take a notable amount of pride in how much people work.

There’s not much to do out here. Some good restaurants, watering holes and basic shopping. But people come here to work, and they work hard.

Steve Dyer, president of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the area has long been dependent on migrant workers.

“I grew up here, and I don’t see a bunch of people getting undercut for jobs,” he said.

Dyer said Garden City is seeing a growth spurt and a housing shortage.

“There’s going to be a need for more workers along with that development, and our unemployment rate is pretty low,” he said. “Our members are having a hard time finding employees.”

Like others representing business organizations, he said the system is broken and it’s important that something be done.

“Everybody knows something needs to be done,” Dyer said. “It’s almost like the health care thing. Something needs to be done.

“What’s the right answer? We don’t know.

“But if it’s not on the table, then we’re not going to find it.”

Sad news

Peters and Koethler suddenly come back into the office.

“You might have noticed my phone ringing while we were talking,” Peters said. “It’s my dad. He died. They were calling to tell me.”

Peters stands there in shock.

Feltman looks stunned, too.

Then Feltman says he’s very sorry and puts his hand on Peters’ shoulder.

Tears fill Peters’ eyes. It’s too much to handle. A decade without seeing his dad, a heart attack, and now he’s dead.

And Peters still can’t go see him – can’t even go to the funeral.

“You’d be throwing it all away,” Feltman advises.

“I know,” Peters says.

They leave again. The fields can wait.

He’s going to see his wife and family to tell them what happened.

Growing enforcement

Despite disagreement over comprehensive immigration reform, the federal government has been updating its approach to immigration enforcement.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would put off legal action for two years for people who immigrated illegally and were under age 31, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have stayed in the country since.

They have to be in school or have some education verified and may not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or more than three minor misdemeanors.

As of June, 400,562 such deferrals had been approved in the U.S., including 3,441 in Kansas, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

Meanwhile, removal of people with felony records and other repeat problems have been given priority. In 2012, ICE removed nearly 410,000 people who fit their priority criteria, a record.

And guards patrolling the Mexican border have increased from 9,100 in 2001 to more than 18,000 currently, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

While thousands take advantage of the deferred action policy, there are those – such as Claudia Amaro, a former Wichita resident – whose timing was less opportune.

Her sister Angelica said Claudia’s dad and uncle were murdered in Mexico 1986 and that she came to the U.S. with her family to escape the violence. She’s now 37.

“I’m the mother of three, and I would have made the same decision to protect my kids,” said Angelica, who has spent years trying to avoid being deported herself.

But after Amaro’s husband was deported, she returned to Mexico with her son. Her husband was deported after pleading guilty to misusing a Social Security number and making a false statement that was linked back to his opening of a checking account and using the false number on his tax returns, according to an Associated Press article.

Amaro among nine people referred to as the “Dream 9” who tried to re-enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, only to be detained. It was part of a protest aimed to draw attention to deportation policies.

Her family joined with Sunflower Community Action leaders in Wichita to protest detention policies. They said Claudia Amaro was among those in the group staging a hunger strike to raise awareness and protest.

Last Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the group was released because they have “credible fear” of being prosecuted in Mexico. An immigration judge will rule on whether they can stay in the U.S. permanently, which could take years.

Not just factories and fields

Immigration has many facets.

While poor conditions and lack of opportunities have led many people from Mexico, Central America, Burma, Sudan and other countries to seek a new life in America, rapidly growing economies in other parts of the world are retaining more of the skilled workers who used to flock to the U.S.

Suresh Ramamurthi, president of Yantra Services Inc., a Topeka-based technology consulting firm, said immigration reform is necessary to help America compete for high-tech workers at a time when rapidly improving economies in emerging markets – including India, Asia and other parts of the world – are drawing more skilled engineers.

Current birth rates in America alone aren’t enough to maintain growth as well as carry out innovative ideas – and America is still the top place for innovation and investment capital, Ramamurthi said.

Already, census estimates show immigrants are on track to outpace the United States’ 0.7 percent annual population growth. Meanwhile, the country needs a much faster pace of economic growth, he said.

“For some reason, it’s something everybody knows,” he said. “Everybody wants more growth, and that requires more people buying more things as opposed to trying to entice the same number of people to consume more goods.”

Ramamurthi said he envisions an immigration system, perhaps similar to Canada’s, that allows more worker visas and immigrants for people with select skills, such as engineering and agriculture.

Places like India, where the quality of life has rapidly improved for educated workers, are now able to keep more of their workforce, and more U.S.-educated students are returning to be close to family, friends and an emerging economy.

A study by the Regional Economic Models Inc., which analyzed the impact of immigration in all states, projected that an expansion of the H-1B visa program could add nearly 300 high-skilled workers to the state next year.

“People are always going to go where they have better opportunities,” Ramamurthi said. “The rest of the world is growing. It’s not sitting idle. As it grows, there’s less and less incentive to immigrate.”

This dynamic – along with demand in meatpacking plants, fields, ranches and construction sites – is part of what led to the formation five years ago of the Kansas Business Coalition for Immigration Reform, which includes heavy hitters like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Wichita Independent Business Association and Kansas Farm Bureau.

The group has tried to stave off attempts to crack down on immigrants, including several bills pushed by Kobach.

D.C. debate

When Sen. Jerry Moran cast his vote on the immigration reform bill in June, he initially said yes.

“Aye,” he said. “I’m sorry. No.”

It elicited a brief giggle in a serious debate that ended with the bill passing 68-32, with all Democrats and 14 of 46 Republican senators voting yes.

Back home in Kansas, Moran’s “no” vote – along with Sen. Pat Roberts’ – reflected at least part of the get-tough, no-amnesty attitudes shared by many Kansans. But it bewildered some business leaders who have been pushing for some kind of reform that makes more workers available to the plants, ranches and farms across western Kansas.

“The business coalition was very disappointed,” said Allie Devine, one of the leaders of the Kansas Coalition for Immigration Reform

She said they’ve met with all Kansas congressional delegation members to urge their support for a bill that simplifies the immigration process, allows temporary work visas, creates a special agricultural guest worker program and creates a pathway for work authorization and citizenship for undocumented people already in the U.S.

Devine said the coalition thinks such a bill would allow the Kansas economy to grow faster, give employers certainty and help public safety by ensuring immigrants have driver’s licenses and can cooperate with police without fear of deportation.

“Kansas has a deficit of workers,” she said.

Without reform, Devine said, the coalition worries that state-by-state piecemeal legislation will prove costly to Kansas and its businesses.

“They (immigrants) contribute to the economy,” she said. “They’ve not been recognized. We need to make sure they’re assimilated into the workforce.”

Moran’s office didn’t respond to an interview request.

But statements he and fellow conservatives have issued paint a clear picture.

The current immigration proposal stemmed from a bipartisan agreement with strong influence from President Obama and was branded as too liberal for Kansas by opponents. Both Moran and Roberts said the 1,200-page immigration reform package is too far-reaching, and they likened it to Obamacare in its complexity.

Roberts and Moran say secure borders come first. The bill calls for that – on top of border security build-ups since Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, also vents about the length of the bill. He said he favors a program that allows more immigrants to legally enter the country based on industry demands.

In a visit to Silicon Valley, he said immigration reform was the dominant issue among top American technology companies. They want more engineers.

“One of the biggest technologies companies, some of you have used it already this morning, said that they would hire 1,000 engineers that day if they could find them,” Pompeo told the Kansas Grain and Feed Association recently.

But he said he has a major problem with the Senate’s bill. As soon as the bill gets signed, he said, more illegal immigrants will cross the border, and the problem will begin building again.

“It’s not decent. It’s not fair,” he said.

So he’s pushing for a massive increase in border security to the north and south. He points to his work patrolling the East German border with a team with four tanks, six fighting vehicles, 35 soldiers and a lot of surveillance.

“To say you can’t do that along the southern border is just ridiculous,” he said.

He wants reform to start with employee verification, secure borders and a new worker permit and immigration system. Only then should the government begin the debate on how to deal with the 11 million or so people already here who immigrated illegally.

He said he’s optimistic the House will approve a better plan that could begin to fix the broken immigration system.

“The rhetoric is just so heated,” he said. “But the way to address this is essentially blocking and tackling.”

‘U.S. government’s fault’

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau and many others have organized support for immigration reform that makes more immigrant workers available to legally hire, many business owners themselves are reluctant to talk about it publicly.

One southwest Kansas feedlot operator said he worries that speaking out could lead authorities to harass him, investigate his workforce and add to the regulatory headaches he and other ranchers face – although he says he doesn’t have anyone on his payroll that didn’t provide proper documentation. The Eagle agreed to not use his name.

He said he has urged Kansas’ congressional delegation to do something. But he says the politicians either just don’t get it or are scared to do what’s necessary.

“It’s the U.S. government’s fault that we’re in this situation,” he said. “Not the people here trying to work or the employers trying to produce and keep their businesses alive.”

At his feedlot, he said, he had a worker forced out of the country. The employee had been in the U.S. for about 15 years. He had tried for five years to get his papers fixed. But immigration officials sent him back to Mexico.

It took 15 more months before he could return, but he still has only a temporary work permit.

“It’s tough,” the feedlot owner said. “They’re not here for citizenship. It’s for the work. And we need the work in the feedlot industry. We need the labor.”

The man said unemployment is very low in his area – about 3 percent.

“We tell our kids to get a college education so they don’t have to do this work,” he said. “But who’s going to do it?”

Kobach, Kansas’ most outspoken illegal immigration opponent, said Americans would take the jobs.

He says the Kansas Coalition for Immigration Reform may have a lot of big names, but it doesn’t speak for the state.

“Meatpacking plants and others want legalization of cheap labor,” he said. “They could instead raise wages, and U.S. citizens would take these jobs.”

Like the coalition, Kobach is meeting with congressmen to discuss reform.

But Kobach’s approach would force the roughly 11 million people in the U.S. who immigrated illegally to return to their home countries by strictly enforcing existing laws and further cracking down on employers by requiring more stringent verification of workers’ residency status.

“People will make the rational decision to stop breaking the law,” he said.

‘The American nightmare’

Nubia Almanza, 30, sits on the back of a minivan in a trailer court on the outskirts of Garden City near the dilapidated ConAgra plant that burned down on Christmas in 2000.

She’s really worried.

She recently got pulled over for driving without a license, one of the choices someone without legal status often makes in order to get to work in rural Kansas.

She faces 10 days in jail – and she worries because she won’t be able to be with her kids, a smiling 14-year-old girl who defaults to English and a 3-year-old son whom she watched as he played in the street with a friend.

Almanza says she doesn’t have any legal documents to live here, although she has fake papers and a job at a restaurant. It’s not what she had hoped for.

“You can’t do a lot of things: buy a house, go to the doctor, drive a car,” she said in Spanish. “You start off good, but problems keep popping up.”

Like many, she’s willing to do almost whatever it takes to become a legal resident.

“I’d sell everything I had to do it,” she said.

Last year, changes in Department of Homeland Security policy were supposed to mean fewer illegal immigrants would be deported following minor traffic violations. But she still worries the infraction could set off a cascade of problems and damage her dreams of opening a business and putting her children on a path to prosperity.

So, like many of her neighbors, she waits.

“The American Dream isn’t just to live here,” she said, glancing at the row of trailers. “It’s not this. The American Dream is to work and be free.

“This isn’t the American Dream. It’s the American nightmare.”

Brent D. Wistrom
Kansas City Star