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Kansas bill seeks to pair undocumented immigrants, jobs

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 10:01 PM EST, Thu February 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill would create a program for some undocumented immigrants to find jobs
  • Opponents say it is legally impossible to do so
  • Supporters say it addresses worker shortages in certain industries

(CNN) -- The Kansas legislature on Thursday introduced a bill that would partner some undocumented immigrants with jobs in industries facing worker shortages.

The Kansas Business, Workers, Communities Partnership Act would create a state program that matches two groups -- local undocumented immigrants who are low-priority for deportation per federal directives, and employers who have trouble finding and keeping employees.

Critics call the bill a nonstarter, arguing that there is no legal way to hire such workers, but the coalition behind the legislation claims they have a creative approach to some of the state's vexing issues.

The bill, HB 2603, comes as state legislatures across the country kick off their sessions for 2012, a year where a number of immigration proposals are expected.

Of the immigration laws that have been passed in the past years, the most well-known are restrictive laws that make states unwelcoming to those who entered the country illegally. Such laws have been passed in states such as Alabama and Georgia, in both cases with detrimental effects to some industries, such as agriculture.

The model that these laws are based on, Arizona's immigration law, was actually written in part by Kansas' secretary of state, Kris Kobach.

Such restrictive legislation has not passed in Kansas, though more tough immigration bills are expected this session. They will compete for attention with HB 2603.

The Kansas bill, its supporters say, addresses the question of what to do with the undocumented population living in the state, and how to avoid calamity in agriculture and other sectors.

However, "this bill is broader than agriculture," said Mike Beam, senior vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association.

The coalition backing the legislation includes the building and construction, landscaping, highway construction, restaurant and hotel and hospitality industries.

These businesses, especially in less populous areas such as western Kansas, suffer from a shortage of workers, Beam said.

In short, the bill proposes that undocumented immigrants that have lived in Kansas for at least five years and pass a criminal background check will be paired with a business in need of workers.

To qualify, the applicants cannot have committed a felony, or more than one misdemeanor, and must work toward English proficiency.

The program would be targeted at a segment of undocumented immigrants who have been designated as low priority for deportation. The Obama administration announced that in order to prioritize the limited amount of people that the United States can deport, authorities would focus on those with criminal records.

"The concept is to dovetail with existing actions by homeland security on undocumented workers," Obama said.

It also answers the concerns of undocumented immigrants being a drain on state resources, he said.

Kobach, the secretary of state, said that such a bill is unfeasible.

"It's legally impossible to do what the proponents want to do," he said.

Utah passed a similar law creating a guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants, set to go into effect next year, but the U.S. Department of Justice has said it will sue to block it, if necessary.

Assistant Attorney General Tony West wrote in a November 21 letter to the attorney general of Utah that "these provisions are clearly preempted by federal law." He urged Utah's legislature to repeal the laws during the new session.

Opponents of HB 2603 say the same obstacle awaits in Kansas.

Allie Devine, a lawyer who helped draft the bill, said the Kansas law does not seek to confer legal status on anyone. The bill simply allows the state of Kansas to sponsor an immigrant in his or her application for a work permit from the federal government.

But Kovach, the secretary of state, said, "It doesn't matter who wants to be the sponsor of an unauthorized alien worker, there is no legal avenue in federal law by which a state or a private entity can sponsor an unauthorized alien worker, and thereby have a pathway to a legal status."

The two sides also disagree on the bill's worth in reducing the labor shortage.

"There's a real need for workers. You can't grow an economy without a work force," Devine said.

Kobach said there are unemployed Kansans who could use those jobs.

"If wages go up, workers show up. That is one thing they don't want to acknowledge," he said of the bill's backers. "That idea that U.S. citizens won't do the work is a false assertion."

Other avenues for foreigners to work legally in the United States, such as work visas, are possible alternatives, Devine said, but the goal is to use the workers who already call Kansas home.

The state's secretary of agriculture, Dale Rodman, in November even traveled to Puerto Rico, a place with high unemployment, to discuss the possibility of training Puerto Ricans to work in Kansas dairies.

Some entry-level dairy jobs in western Kansas pay about $30,000 plus benefits, about the same as a teacher's pay, said the livestock association's Beam.

Immigration is always a thorny issue in lawmakers' hands, and Devine declined to estimate the chances of this bill passing.

Kobach didn't hesitate: "I don't think this thing even is going to have a snowball's chance in hell of passing."

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