Kansas ag secretary asks DHS to legitimize illegal immigrant farm labor

David Martosko Executive Editor
Font Size:

Faced with a shortage of hired hands, Kansas ranchers and farmers are appealing to their state’s secretary of agriculture for a solution. And he says he has one: hiring illegal immigrants.

It’s an idea that’s unorthodox enough to turn heads but practical enough to justify a series of meetings with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — a meeting which Kansas Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman told the Topeka Capital-Journal he has attended.

His goal is for the state government to organize a network of illegal immigrants and willing employers into a hiring network. No such arrangement, of course, can go forward without the federal government’s approval, since Washington, D.C. is tasked with enforcing immigration laws.

“I need a waiver,” Rodman said. “It would be good for Kansas agriculture.”

As talks continue off-and-on in Washington, D.C., state lawmakers in Topeka are expected to unveil their own legislative fix soon: A federal government-approved program that would allow businesses to hire illegal immigrants who have lived in Kansas for at least five years. Prospective workers with criminal records would be disqualified.

Observers see immigrants with expired visas as logical candidates for jobs that are otherwise going unfilled, especially in Kansas counties where unemployment is low. But since government programs are unlikely to distinguish between illegal immigrants who snuck across the border and those who merely overstayed their welcome, any proposal is sure to generate controversy.

The Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association are already mobilizing in the state capital to support the coming measure, but so are state and local Chamber of Commerce branches and organizations allied with the construction industry.

Standing against them is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. Kobach was part of a group that drafted the tough new immigration laws now in force in Arizona and Alabama, both of which have attracted lawsuits from the federal government itself. And both measures, say critics, have depressed statewide economies as businesses work within tightly enforced hiring restrictions.

“If there were fewer jobs illegal aliens could obtain unlawfully and get away with it, fewer illegal aliens would come to Kansas,” he said.

When Kobach floated a similar law in Kansas last year, the same coalition of farmers, ranchers, builders and Chambers of Commerce opposed him and won.

Republican state Rep. Larry Powell, who chairs the Kansas House Agriculture Committee, said throwing out the mostly Hispanic illegal aliens would cripple farmers.

“Most have been there more than 10 years,” Powell told the Capital-Journal. “It would be devastating to the Kansas economy to send them all home.”

Follow David on Twitter