Since gaining control of the Kansas Legislature, conservatives cut taxes, restricted abortion and limited the power of teacher unions.
New laws aimed at curtailing illegal immigration have proved more elusive, but the issue figures to return this year with a new twist proposed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a national leader in the movement to stop illegal immigration.
Like other efforts to challenge the federal government on guns and environmental protections, Kobach wants the Legislature to resist President Barack Obama’s controversial executive order stopping the deportation of nearly 5 million illegal immigrants.
Kobach authored a bill introduced in the Kansas Senate declaring Obama’s executive order unconstitutional.
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The bill would bar businesses that hire illegal immigrants from deducting those employees’ wages as a business expense from state income taxes. It also would prevent illegal immigrants who benefit from Obama’s order from getting driver’s licenses or state identification cards.
The bill is intended to make clear that Kansas will continue treating illegal immigrants as being in the United States illegally because, Kobach said, the president stepped outside his authority when he signed the executive order.
“I hope Kansas legislators will step forward and take the correct legal stand that Obama’s actions are illegal and unconstitutional,” Kobach said.
Kobach’s latest legislation is among a series of bills resurfacing this year aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. The proposals include:
▪ Banning state colleges and universities from charging in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants. The House has passed similar legislation before, but it was blocked by a Senate controlled by moderate Republicans. The Senate is distinctly more conservative now than before 2013 and would likely have to move on the bill before it would be taken up in the House.
▪ Requiring contractors doing more than $5,000 worth of business with the state to enroll in an Internet-based system called E-Verify, which allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. It also would apply to private businesses with more than four employees. If found in violation, they would be barred from deducting wages of the illegal immigrant as a business expense on their income taxes.
After suffering legislative setbacks in recent years, Kobach hopes this year will be ripe for pushing bills limiting illegal immigration, possibly fueled by Obama’s executive order that’s now being challenged in the courts.
“We are the sanctuary state of the Midwest,” Kobach said of Kansas. “We are the only state in the five-state area that does nothing to discourage illegal immigration and on top of that we do something to encourage it by giving in-state tuition to illegal aliens.”
But Kobach faces a familiar lineup arrayed against him, including the politically powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce — a key player in electing conservatives statewide. The chamber is part of a statewide immigration reform coalition that three years ago backed a guest-worker program allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the state if they worked in agriculture or other sectors experiencing labor shortages.
Chamber President Mike O’Neal said the immigration issue is best left to the federal government.
“We’re really not anxious to see that debate come to the Capitol here,” said O’Neal, a former Kansas House speaker. “Those debates obviously get way out of hand. You get all sorts of proposals that come up that are not in the best interest of the state.”
Likewise, Kobach would expect to run into opposition from Democrats who’ve been fierce opponents of the secretary of state.
“The sad thing is it surfaced again,” said state Rep. Louis Ruiz, a Kansas City Democrat. “It’s a perpetuation of people’s hate.”
Kobach wants to seize on the unpopularity of Obama’s executive order on immigration.
Lawsuits have already been filed against the law in various jurisdictions. Kansas is among 25 states that challenged the executive order in federal court in south Texas.
In an immigration case from Pennsylvania, a federal judge already opined that Obama could not constitutionally delay the deportation of illegal immigrants. The judge’s opinion, however, was limited to the Pennsylvania case and did not direct the government to take any action.
Last month, a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas — where immigration is a major issue — heard oral arguments in the lawsuit brought by Kansas and 24 other states. The states allege that Obama overstepped constitutional limits on presidential power.
“The national climate has shown that the executive branch is acting completely lawlessly,” Kobach said. “It has awakened some state legislators to the fact that the time has come for states to do something because the president is breaking federal law.”
State Rep. Steve Brunk leads the House committee that hears legislation on immigration. He said there could be an appetite for a bill opposing Obama’s executive order on immigration as long as it was limited in scope.
“(Obama) is doing something beyond his presidential authority,” the Wichita Republican said. “The question would remain is what could states do about it.”