Businessman Greg Orman, who is running for Kansas governor as an independent, made some impressive arguments when he met with our editorial board recently. And the strongest of them, on our bottom-line need for more rather than fewer immigrants, is one we wish more Democrats had the courage to make as forcefully and often as Orman does.
It’s not easy. President Donald Trump believes that the way he talks about immigrants got him elected and is still great politics. He and other Republicans characterize the humanitarian and refugee crisis of the migrant caravan of Hondurans and other Central Americans as a threat instead of as a problem that no wall or family separation policy could ever solve, because so many of these migrants are desperate to save their families from violence.
Orman’s GOP rival, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has two preoccupations: One is that illegal immigrants are supposedly costing us precious resources, and the other is imaginary voter fraud by illegal immigrants. He insists we can significantly cut spending by ending in-state tuition for undocumented students at Kansas universities and colleges — a move that would only reduce enrollment and revenue since many could not afford out-of-state tuition.
Democrats often decry the cruelty of family separation, but say more about what we should not do than what we should. Which would start with recognizing that with illegal immigration at a 40-year low, this isn’t the problem it’s made out to be.
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If more Democrats dared to lay out how vital immigrant labor is to our economy, maybe their policy alternative would not be dismissed as “open borders.”
Orman does that, and argues that if Kobach’s policies were put into effect, the economy of western Kansas would collapse along with its feedlots, dairy farms and meatpacking plants, decimating whole communities. “It would be a domino effect,” Orman said.
Immigrants are 9 percent of our workforce. The 70,000 undocumented immigrants in Kansas live with 100,000 people who are here legally, and deporting them all would be beyond counterproductive: Qué desastre.
“I’m the only one in the race who has stood up to Secretary Kobach when he’s talked about his immigration plans,” Orman said. “I realize it’s a tough issue. I look at the polls, too. I understand Kansans are split...so it’s easy to lose votes by coming out and saying strongly we need to create an environment that’s not hostile to workers. It’s a lot easier to punt and say, ‘Oh, it’s a federal issue.’ ”
State Sen. Laura Kelly, the Democratic nominee, does push back on Kobach’s extremism but presents it as a federal issue she’d encourage Kansans in Congress to resolve. When asked about the issue when she met with the editorial board, she began this way: “Everybody recognizes our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed.” Which is why, “Congress should step up and pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Every time they’ve come close, demagoguing has kept reform just out of reach.
Kelly knows that “part of our economy is dependent on immigration labor” and that we have a workforce shortage. “Can you imagine what would happen to western Kansas if we were to round everybody up?” Yes, we can, and every Kansan should.
Even that mental exercise won’t happen if we’re as timid as Kansas Democratic congressional candidate Paul Davis, who in a meeting with us talked about immigration the same old way: “Do we have too many people coming over the border from Mexico? No doubt about it. Do we need better border security? Yes.”
Are there really too many coming across, and if so, is that a problem here? “The issue mainly is the border,” he said, and “there should be other ways that people are run through proper channels, I guess.”
Orman said Kobach supporters tell him what bothers them is that a law’s been broken. Of course, many undocumented immigrants present themselves to authorities and legally apply for asylum. Some officials have broken the law in attempting to criminalize this legal act.
Making that case, Orman says, is “one of the fights that that needs to be fought for the sake of Kansas.” Which is difficult, brave and necessary.