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Kansas passed an instate tuition policy that provided higher educational opportunities for immigrant students in 2004. Many people outside the state were puzzled, wondering how Kansas could join the ranks of New York and California in taking such a progressive stance. In subsequent years, Democrat and Republican lawmakers turned back repeated attempts to repeal this signature legislation. By joining forces, alliances formed between lawmakers from both parties. They took ownership of the policy that facilitated the education of young immigrants, understanding that it was in the best interests of the state.

When Kris Kobach, an anti-immigrant attorney with a long history of working for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, was elected Secretary of State in 2010, many believed that the legislative coalition that had passed and protected the pro-education measure was doomed. Indeed, Kobach had once sued the state, unsuccessfully, in opposition to this legislation. Kobach’s plans to bring an Arizona-style anti-immigrant hardline to the state seemed inevitable. Instead, Kobach was rebuffed two legislative sessions in a row. He failed to have passed even limited pilots programs of e-verify, a measure that supposedly ‘cracks down’ on unauthorized employment. Kobach’s failures were due to multiple factors. Certainly the courageous and talented immigrant students, who are the face of this policy, deserve much of the credit for turning back Kobach. Their mere presence in the statehouse mocked anti-immigrant politicians’ outrageous claims about their limited academic ability or alleged dangerous criminality. Business groups opposed legislation they viewed as harmful to commerce in the state. And despite Kobach’s renewed attacks on Kansas’ instate tuition law, he failed gain any real traction in the legislature. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, however, remained silent on this issue. The input of colleges and universities across the state, which view these students as valuable recruits, was also of some significance, particularly to legislators loyal to their hometown schools.

Time and again, a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, with a few conservative Catholics in the Kansas Senate, closed each Kansas legislative session without passage of harmful anti-immigrant policy. In 2004, and again in 2008 and 2010, building this coalition of moderates and liberals from both parties appeared to be a workable political strategy for immigrant rights advocates in a solidly Republican state.

The situation began to change in 2011, however, when Secretary of State Kobach managed to convince enough moderate Republicans to vote for his voter identification bill, with its onerous and anti-democratic provisions. Moderates voted for this bill despite their public doubts about the existence of so-called ‘voter fraud.’ Many believed it was simply a phantom. At that point, the long-term viability of this legislative alliance was exposed. It collapsed entirely in the August 2012 primary, when business interests and conservative activists joined forces and ousted seven moderate senators and picked up several additional open seats in the House and Senate in a chaotic post-redistricting election.

While immigration did not figure prominently into the primary campaigns, the new legislators are unlikely to be persuaded to support pro-immigrant policies. Immigrant rights advocates face the prospect that the Kansas Legislature will likely have veto-proof majorities in favor of anti-immigrant legislation. They can expect the repeal of instate tuition. Notably, Governor Sam Brownback, once a cosponsor of comprehensive immigration reform as a United States Senator, has failed to commit to veto even Kobach’s harshest attacks on immigrant rights.

In the short-term, this means considerable ground lost, and real pain in immigrant communities and across the state. There is likely to be virtually no checks on Kobach and Company’s agenda. In the long run, progressive interests in Kansas have to rethink strategies that depended on a ‘big tent’ Republican Party. This will require new coalitions and a revitalized grassroots base, so that Kansas can once again surprise the nation and itself.

Melinda Lewis

Author Melinda Lewis

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