By DAVID KLEPPER and JASON NOBLE
The Kansas City Star
TOPEKA | With Congress on the sidelines, lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri say they have no choice but to make illegal immigration a target in 2008.
In both states, legislators are pushing tougher laws. The measures — being considered in neighboring states and already passed in Oklahoma — range from increased authority for law enforcement to tougher rules for employers.
“You’re seeing this now because this issue has hit the heartland,” said Sen. Scott Rupp, a Wentzville, Mo., Republican who said he had seen two instances of illegal immigrant labor in his home district.
In Kansas, hospitals reported $37 million in emergency room services for illegal immigrants in fiscal 2007. More than 2,100 infants were born to illegal immigrants in Kansas hospitals during that same time. A study based on 2005 statistics estimated the state had as many as 70,000 illegal immigrants — a population nearly the size of Lawrence.
“We are a country that’s based on immigrants, but they were legal immigrants, and they assimilated,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican and the sponsor of a comprehensive immigration-reform plan. “The question is, when is it good public policy to reward illegal behavior?”
Opponents of the proposals said that there was no evidence illegal immigrants caused the problems many suggested and that tougher rules could overburden law enforcement or hurt businesses that relied on immigrant labor.
“People can pass all the laws they want, but I believe this is about economics, and we need to understand what brings people to this country,” said Mary Lou Jaramillo, director of El Centro, which helps Latinos with housing, education and job training in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
A wave of activity
States are taking a hard look at immigration reform after Congress deadlocked on the issue last year.
Oklahoma last year passed what has become a template for proposals in Kansas and Missouri. The Oklahoma law allows local and state authorities to enforce federal immigration law and prohibits anyone from offering housing, jobs or even a ride to an illegal immigrant.
Lawmakers in Colorado, Nebraska and Arkansas are floating their own proposals — prompting supporters in Kansas and Missouri to call for haste. They said illegal immigrants would likely go to the state with the weakest enforcement.
“Kansas is right in the middle of all this,” said Ed Hayes, founder of the Kansas chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an anti-illegal-immigration group that conducts patrols of the border.
Illegal immigrants “know that Kansas isn’t doing anything. That makes us a sanctuary state.”
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