Kansas legislators set to re-open debate over E-Verify amid national immigration conversation
TOPEKA, Kan. – Legislators in Topeka are set to wade back into the nationwide battle on immigration, thanks to a renewed debate on requirements mandating state agencies and even some private businesses use a federal database to check whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.
It is part of a long-running debate dating back to the days of former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, with many lawmakers and business allies pushing back on requiring the use of the database, known as E-Verify.
The proposal, introduced by Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, made its way into the budget last month and was preserved by a bipartisan, bicameral group of negotiators.
It could yet be removed in the days to come, but Holland said it was an important blow for fairness at a time when the state’s economy is very much still in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This basically is just to be sure that Kansas taxpayer dollars are going to projects that are being staffed by people who can legally work here in the U.S. and do that work,” Holland said. “I think it’s important we show and we provide that transparency to our Kansas taxpayers.”
Still, there are some who question the potential impact such a move would have on businesses. And immigration groups have long opposed such a move, arguing it does little to solve the problem legislators are trying to solve.
“Requiring U.S. employers to use E-Verify will harm Kansas’ economy and U.S. workers while doing little to end unauthorized employment,” the National Immigration Law Center wrote in a fact sheet in 2012, the last time legislators seriously considered the proposal.
E-Verify debate comes amid national focus on immigration
Twenty-two states require at least some employers to use E-Verify. The strictest requirements are in nine, mostly Southern, states, which mandate all businesses use E-Verify or risk tough fines, the loss of operating licenses and even bans on engaging in commerce in a given state.
Others have less stringent policies, more in line with what Kansas is considering: a mandate that all state agencies use E-Verify, as well as any state contractors doing more than $50,000 worth of business with the state government.
The idea has gained bipartisan traction over the years, even when its chief cheerleader was Kobach, whose controversial immigration-related comments gained headlines across the country.
In 2012, Kobach pushed for a similar proposal as part of a broader package of immigration-related measures.
“Unless Kansas acts we will become the No. 1 destination for illegal aliens in the Midwest,” Kobach said at the time. “Indeed, we are already well on our way to holding that title.”
Kobach’s statement wasn’t accurate. Roughly 75,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Kansas as of 2016, according to data from the Pew Research Center — more than Nebraska and Missouri but fewer than Oklahoma and many states in the upper Midwest, such as Minnesota or Illinois.
But a similar debate still rages, even though lawmakers haven’t touched the issue since 2012.
In voicing her support for the provision on the Senate floor, Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, cited the ongoing situation at the U.S.-Mexico border in outlining the need for mandating E-Verify.
Thousands of people, many of them unaccompanied children, have sought to enter the U.S. along the Mexico border in recent weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered more than 172,000 people trying to enter the U.S. along the southwest border in March, up from the 100,441 in February, according to Biden administration officials’ analysis of the numbers.
Kansas’ role in the matter is tangential, although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did reach out to states in the region to gauge whether they could house undocumented children if need be. Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters Wednesday the state has housed asylum seekers in the past, although she didn’t say if it would be an option this time around.
Still, Tyson cited the immigration debate nationally as a reason for state action on E-Verify.
“It is time that we step up as a state and say ‘Enough, we will not take it anymore,'” Tyson said.
Advocates point to federal requirements
Holland took a different tact in advocating for the idea.
Federal contractors, he said, are already required to use E-Verify when they work on projects backed by taxpayer dollars. Holland knows this from personal experience — he and his wife run a firm that relies on federal contracts and has had to comply with the mandate, which dates back to the days of the Obama Administration.
He pointed out that Kansas companies — including firms that run meatpacking plants in western Kansas, which tend to hire from immigrant populations in those communities — also have expanded their use of E-Verify.
This is true for many — but not all — of the state’s construction contractors, who have similarly had to comply with the federal mandate.
“A large percentage of my membership is already using E-Verify,” said Michael White, executive director of the Kansas Contractors Association. “So I just don’t think this is going to impact all that much.”
White did note that one impact could be at the state agency level, with government officials now having to create mechanisms to ensure their contractors are using the database.
The bill doesn’t outline penalties for non-compliance, meaning it is unclear what would happen to agencies or businesses who neglected to use E-Verify.
“The way I read (the amendment), the state has the obligation to just make sure that somebody is using it,” White said.
Business groups fear increased regulation, costs
While White noted most of his members had come around on E-Verify, the worry was still there that more resources would be required to comply with any mandate — including handling documents proving a person’s immigration status and running a person’s name through the federal database.
“Anytime there is a layer of government regulation, it’s going to create costs for businesses,” White said. “So clearly, that was one concern.”
Similar arguments have been made in the past by Republican lawmakers and business groups skeptical of what the mandate would mean.
Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the powerful Kansas Chamber, said in a statement the group believes immigration matters “should be resolved at the federal level.”
“While Congress has not yet shown any serious interest in addressing the problem, mandating voluntary programs on employers at the state level is not the right approach,” Cobb said. “It creates a patchwork of state laws with varying requirements, increases regulations, and puts Kansas at a competitive disadvantage.”
Holland dismissed the concerns over cost increases as a red herring.
He also said there was no indication requiring E-Verify would lead to an uptick in what is known as misclassification, when an undocumented worker is labeled as an independent contractor — something which federal law allows for.
“The fear is certain firms out there knowingly using document labor,” Holland said. “And they don’t want this to screw up their business model.”
Research on E-Verify requirements a mixed bag
There is significant debate about the effectiveness of E-Verify mandates.
Researchers found evidence that a law in Arizona requiring all employers use E-Verify does “not appear to have improved labor market outcomes of legal low‐skilled workers” — a common argument used by proponents.
A 2020 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found E-Verify’s results on the labor market to be mixed. And a study from a team of University of Georgia researchers found E-Verify reduced the number of undocumented agricultural workers in some states, but not others.
For his part, Holland pointed out his proposal would be much narrower in scope than those other states.
He said he had no interest in pursuing broader requirements, for instance, and noted his focus was on ensuring accountability for taxpayers in the state.
“It needs to stop with this,” Holland said. “I think it’s a good program for say, state and local government. I do not support this being rolled out to all businesses in Kansas. I’m not looking to be overly intrusive. I’m more concerned from a taxpayer standpoint where those dollars are going.”