Immigrants face new reality and old fears under a Kansas law banning ‘sanctuary’ cities

Betty Q. Hixson

TOPEKA — Alejandro Rangel-Lopez says fear is a given in a mixed-status household.

Growing up in Dodge City with an undocumented parent, Rangel-Lopez constantly feared his father coming home with news that immigration agents had detained his mother.

And he says fear of deportation kept his mother from reporting an abusive ex-husband who fled with their two oldest children to Mexico in 2001.

“That’s what delayed her justice and cost her the right to see my two older siblings grow up,” Rangel-Lopez said. “She couldn’t see them until she got her green card this year, 21 years later.”

The fear of law enforcement or other government authorities that many immigrants experience is corrosive to a community, said Rangel-Lopez, the lead coordinator for New Frontiers Project, a southwest Kansas group working to civically empower people of color. And that’s why the 21-year-old University of Kansas student supports city ordinances like the short-lived Safe and Welcoming Act in Wyandotte County that limit or prohibit how much city officials can cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

The policy also provided immigrants a municipal identification card without fear of information going to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But a new state law passed with haste earlier this year in response to the Wyandotte County ordinance.

Immigrants are reeling from the law and the far reaching effects it could have on their communities, even beyond those with welcoming ordinances. With a growing immigrant population, advocates warn of economic and criminal fallout from the legislative action.

The law prohibits local governments from taking action to prevent law enforcement from working with federal immigration authorities. Municipality ID cards are invalid when used instead of state identification for purposes like voter ID.

The state law undercuts not only the Wyandotte County ordinance but similar ones in Lawrence and Roeland Park. Immigration advocates say the law will have a chilling effect on the state’s economy and create several legal dilemmas.

A coalition of Wyandotte County organizations, including the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, urged Gov. Laura Kelly to reject the measure. But in signing the law, Kelly said immigration reform “cannot be resolved at the municipal level” and that the responsibility to address a “broken” system “rests with Congress.”

Judy Ancel, president of the Cross Border Network, a Kansas City organization that supports workers across borders and who cross borders, acknowledged the bill had enough support in the Legislature to override a veto, but said the governor’s action sent the wrong message to her immigrant supporters, many of whom are law-abiding citizens.

Data compiled from 2011 to 2019 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas shows more than 4,000 people arrested or removed by ICE during that time, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime. During that time, the state’s population grew by more than 60,000 — driven predominantly by immigrants, according to the ACLU data.

ICE detainers are not arrest warrants, and immigration law is civil, not criminal, Ancel said.

“What (the new state law) says is that Kansas is really ignorant and backward,” Ancel said. “To families who might be thinking of moving here, who may or may not have undocumented people but who are immigrants, it says Kansas is unsafe and unwelcome to immigrant labor.”

 

Wyandotte County residents in city hall the night of the county commission vote on the Safe and Welcoming ordinance hold small yellow signs that read “vote yes.”  (The Cross Border Network)

A budding effort

Ancel was among the people who spent years working to pass the Safe and Welcoming Act in Wyandotte County.

For Ancel, the effort began in 2007 but did not catch the attention of the local government until about five years ago. Since then, Ancel and a coalition of community organizations knocked on doors and worked to create an ordinance they said would ensure a more cohesive community.

Finally, in February, Wyandotte County commissioners approved the ordinance.

“A lot of people in Wyandotte County were set to benefit from it when we passed it,” Ancel said. “Hopes were raised.”

According to Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte, as many as 30,000 people in Wyandotte County have difficulty accessing a government-issued ID card. That is approximately 1 in 5 people who live in the county, including foster children, immigrants, people without housing and the elderly.

Yazmin Bruno Valdez, a community organizer for Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation, said with the law in place and the information potentially liable to be used in other ways, she is advising against the ID.

Valdez, 21, is an immigrant, a DACA recipient, and lived without identification for more than 20 years. She says lacking an ID made her feel like she was not part of society and kept her from doing many of the things she wanted to do.

She was even denied entrance at first to her senior prom because she did not have a driver’s license or state-issued ID. Safe and Welcoming was an opportunity to include a community working hard but often unseen, Valdez said.

“To turn back around a month later and tell those same people that those protections we promised, that you worked hard for, were ripped away because of a law that passed in less than a month,” Valdez said. “It will completely change people’s lives — I can guarantee that.”

The law allows the attorney general, a county or district attorney to bring a court action to compel a municipality or person to comply with provisions of the law.

Wyandotte County was not the first local government to become a so-called “sanctuary city.” Lawrence took the initiative in 2020, passing an ordinance that prohibits collecting immigration-related information for people to access city services and limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE agents.

Mariel Ferreiro, co-founder and organizer with Sanctuary Alliance Lawrence, said incidents involving immigration enforcement agents driving up and down Iowa Street in town, and eventually detaining someone, caused a big stir that started the conversation.

Then in January 2018, ICE agents detained Syed Jamal in front of his home as he was preparing to take his children to school. Jamal’s case became a matter of international interest amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants whose legal status in the country was in doubt.

Jamal eventually walked free, but the incident was enough to push the Lawrence community to enact a protective ordinance for immigrants.

“It was this idea that all citizens and community members should have access to city resources and immigration not be something that’s a barrier to them,” Ferreiro said. “Unfortunately, this (state law) definitely put a huge pause and now we’re kind of trying to figure out what we can do.”

The new law also largely negates a Roeland Park ordinance that said city officials can decline to use funds or resources to help federal immigration agencies or to share information on an individual’s immigration status. Police were required to alert residents of any federal immigration enforcement action within 48 hours, except in cases where a crime had occurred.

Yeni Telles said this could fracture trust built between the immigrant community and law enforcement beyond eastern Kansas. Telles was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. in 1999, eventually moving to Kansas to fulfill her dream of becoming a homeowner and graduating from a university.

“As a social worker working directly with victims of crime, especially victims of domestic violence, there is already fear within the immigrant community contacting law enforcement to report a crime committed against them,” Telles said. “Immigrants are not strangers. They are our neighbors, the family of our children’s classmates, our coworkers.”

 

Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed the law banning "sanctuary" cities earlier this year, singling out the Wyandotte County ordinance as a particular concern. He was backed up by Republican lawmakers who approved the bill with a supermajority vote. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed the law banning “sanctuary” cities earlier this year, singling out the Wyandotte County ordinance as a particular concern. He was backed up by Republican lawmakers who approved the bill with a supermajority vote. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

State officials backing the law

While testimony provided to the Legislature on the law banning sanctuary jurisdictions was predominantly in opposition to the measure, a handful of elected state officials argued a patchwork of local ordinances presented several issues.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed the legislation in February, shortly after Wyandotte County approved its act.

“Citizens throughout our state deserve to know that wherever they may travel in Kansas, law enforcement officials are cooperating with federal and state agencies to fairly enforce applicable law and are not obliged to turn a blind eye to some unlawful conduct merely because of local politics,” Schmidt said in a statement upon filing the bill.

Testifying before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, the Republican candidate for governor said Kansas required such a law to ensure the entire state can be safe and welcoming to immigrants.

Bryan Caskey, the state election director, followed Schmidt’s testimony and said the Secretary of State’s office supported the bill to ensure proper voting protocol.

“It is the firm position of the Kansas Secretary of State that only United States citizens may vote in an election,” Caskey said. “Requiring voter identification to cast a ballot ensures the protection of voters’ rights and the integrity of the electoral process.”

Opponents said this was a misplaced concern because immigrants would need to register to vote, which only citizens can do, before casting a ballot.

At a recent debate among Republican candidates for attorney general, all three participants agreed outlawing sanctuary cities was the best course for the state. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said the legislation did not go far enough.

“I propose one that would take away all state money from any city or any company that has a sanctuary policy,” Kobach said.

 

People gathered at a rally for the Safe and Welcoming Committee Act in Wyandotte County outside city hall in October. The measure had strong community support and a coalition of community stakeholders backing it. (Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation)
People gathered at a rally for the Safe and Welcoming Committee Act in Wyandotte County outside city hall in October. The measure had strong community support and a coalition of community stakeholders backing it. (Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation)

Legal complications and confusion

While Schmidt and Republican legislators argued different policies in various parts of the state would create confusion, Genevra Alberti said the new law is the real source of uncertainty.

Alberti, the vice-chairwoman of the Missouri-Kansas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told legislators during a hearing on the matter that immigration law is incredibly complicated, even for those who practice it daily. She said immigration law enforcement falls under the purview of the federal government, but the new state law would “deputize” any law enforcement officer to enforce immigration law without limit or oversight.

Other parts of the bill were concerningly vague, Alberti added in her testimony on the law. She said nowhere in the law is it explicitly established what actions local jurisdictions are required or permitted to take.

“In effect, this legislation permits, even encourages, any law enforcement person or office to take any action, no matter what overreach, and prohibits any commonsense policy or limitation from being placed on any act construed to be ‘cooperation’ — just so long as it, ostensibly, is related to immigration,” Alberti said.

Alberti also said the new state law strips Kansas communities of their right to oversight of their police departments. Coordinating with ICE activities has frequently been found to be illegal and unconstitutional, leaving law enforcement vulnerable to potential complaints and lawsuits.

 

A vigil held just before the vote on the Safe and Welcoming ordinance in February. welcoming counties had median household incomes that were $4,353 higher, 2.3% lower poverty rates and 1.1% lower unemployment rates. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)
A vigil held just before the vote on the Safe and Welcoming ordinance in February. welcoming counties had median household incomes that were $4,353 higher, 2.3% lower poverty rates and 1.1% lower unemployment rates. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

A burden on business across Kansas

The ripples of the bill will be felt in businesses across Kansas, said Martin Rosas, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local Two President.

Rosas, who also serves as vice president of the UFCW International Union, testified during the legislature’s hearing on the bill on behalf of more than 11,000 workers in the food-supply industry in Kansas. He said the measure would impact agricultural and food processing industries.

Rosas, citing a recent analysis of the American Community Survey, said foreign-born workers make up 34.5% of the employees working in the food processing industry in the state and 25.6% of those work in the agricultural industry.

“The most recent public health crisis is a proof of this statement,” Rosas said. “Thousands of immigrants, considered essentials to the state infrastructure, stood up through the pandemic to keep the food supply in all Kansas’ tables.”

According to a recent study on the effects of sanctuary policies, welcoming counties had median household incomes that were $4,353 higher, 2.3% lower poverty rates and 1.1% lower unemployment rates.

“(The law) will make our state less inclusive, less prosperous and less safe,” said Caleb Smith of Kansas Appleseed. “Our state’s future and the well-being of our communities is at stake.”

 

Those closest to the efforts to approve these ordinances, like Judy Ancel, far left, Karla Juarez, top left, and Yazmin Bruno Valdez, bottom middle, now are left to try and pick up the pieces of the ordinances and what to do next. (Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation)

Looking toward the future

With the law enrolled, immigration reform advocates and stakeholders involved in passing their city or county sanctuary ordinances are asking: “What next?”

Karla Juarez, executive director of the Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation, and a member of the Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte Coalition, said step one was to analyze what parts of their ordinance might be salvageable. In addition, Juarez was hopeful there would be some sort of statewide education initiative.

“So, focusing on the individual and communities, give them the facts about how this is going to affect you because there is lots of fear mongering,” Juarez said.

Juarez also agreed with the governor’s assertion that Congress should address federal immigration. Unfortunately, she said the law put community organizers in a tight spot where making meaningful policy changes to protect immigrants was now in question.

Other members of the coalition echoed Kelly’s request for a trailer bill to ensure individuals who rely on local government IDs to vote, like veterans, the elderly and Kansans with disabilities, are not adversely affected.

So far, no such bill has been filed.

Ferreiro, of Sanctuary Alliance Lawrence, is looking at ways to ensure legislation like this does not pass in the future. For her, the best way to do that is to mobilize different communities to vote in droves.

“We saw those shifts on a smaller level. We saw it in Lawrence. You saw them in Roeland Park and in Wyandotte County,” Ferreiro said. “What would it look like if we grew that, and we tried to do that statewide? Could we shift the power politically back to the people?”

Immigrants face new reality and old fears under a Kansas law banning ‘sanctuary’ cities

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