Commentary: Kansas' schizophrenic immigration policy

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

Duck if you're headed into the state of Kansas. Mixed signals are flying fast.

On the subject of undocumented immigrants, officials are all over the place. The secretary of agriculture wants to put them to work. The secretary of state wants to deport them. The governor vows to eradicate child poverty while taking food aid from the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Are we confused yet?

Let’s start with the simplest piece. That would be Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose position on illegal immigrants never changes. He wants them gone, period.

The legal eagle is always very busy helping states and cities draft laws to run off illegals and advising GOP candidate Mitt Romney and the like, but he spends some time in Topeka. Recently, Kobach has been berating lawmakers and officials because the state isn’t moving quickly enough on the law he got passed last year requiring voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship.

He also found time to slap down the idea of granting undocumented immigrants special dispensation to work agricultural and other hard-to-fill jobs.

“Amnesty,” he sneered.

Mention of the dreaded “A” word just might be the explanation for the strange posture of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration on the immigrant workforce issue.

Agricultural Secretary Dale Rodman said last week that he wants to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security so agricultural businesses could hire undocumented workers. Business groups proposed creating a pool of immigrant workers who would be available in the event of a labor shortage.

But no sooner did word of this startling idea leak out than the governor’s office said he didn’t support it.

Really? Brownback is a hands-on governor. It’s simply implausible to think his ag secretary would propose a radical idea without a thumbs-up from the boss.

One new policy Brownback should run away from is the decision by his Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to kick hundreds of children off the eligibility rolls for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as SNAP benefits, or food stamps.

Federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving SNAP aid. But their children may be eligible if they were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

Most states use a formula which brings low-wage, mixed-status families into compliance with SNAP eligibility rules. That’s how Kansas operated until recently.

But state officials now say the old formula discriminated against Americans by sometimes giving families with undocumented workers more in benefits than families in which everyone is a U.S. citizen.

OK, fair enough. The state could fix the formula so the mixed-status families never receive more than the all-U.S. families. Problem solved.

But it won’t. Instead, officials keep repeating that the old formula was discriminatory, skating around the obvious easy fix.

Brownback seems to be OK with cutting low-wage families off their monthly food aid allotment, which was paid by the federal government. That stance puzzles some people, who remember a different Sam Brownback.

Sister Therese Bangert of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth recalls Brownback, then a U.S. senator, speaking at the Justice for Immigrants Ecumenical Day in Dodge City in 2006. She remembers him lamenting the anger centering around immigrant communities and recommending that people take time to get to know an immigrant family.

Brownback in 2007 sponsored a bill to grant U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants who grow up here and meet certain conditions. But he helped vote down a similar bill in one of his final acts as a senator in 2010.

What happened? Who knows? Maybe it was the way the conservative base howled every time Congress tried to discuss comprehensive immigration reform. Maybe it was the tepid response Brownback received from conservative voters when he ran for president in 2008.

Whatever it was, the politician who once courageously supported a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants is now hiding behind bureaucratic mumble to deny those children food assistance. As mixed signals go, that one is pathetic.