Wyandotte County adopts ordinance to improve services, care of undocumented immigrants

Critics sought countywide vote; attorney general wants ban on ‘sanctuary’ cities

By: - February 11, 2022 5:18 pm
Opponents and supporters packed the lobby to testify on the Save and Welcoming City act approved by commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. ((Kansas Reflector screen capture from Unified Government's YouTube channel)

Opponents and supporters packed the lobby to testify on the Save and Welcoming City act approved by commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Unified Government’s YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Commissioners on the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas/Wyandotte County approved a controversial ordinance years in the making that would provide photograph identification cards to undocumented residents to improve their access to essential public services and to enhance their quality of life.

The commission voted 6-4 to adopt the Safe and Welcoming City Act to provide IDs to immigrants and affirm the practice by local law enforcement agencies of not assisting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations in Wyandotte County. Advocates of the ordinance worked on the project for five years. The commission approved the motion after nearly four hours of debate and public comment.

“This means that I get to take my family to get an ID,” said Yazmin Bruno-Valdez, who offered support for the ordinance. “They get to have safety and finally feel welcome in our community.”

Emotions flared during the meeting Thursday night with one participant issuing a vague threat about calling people to rally against enforcement of the ordinance. Several commissioners expressed frustration with name calling, race baiting and talk of white supremacy swirling around the issue.

Supporters of the program said many undocumented people lived in fear of unwelcome interactions with police or the potential of other complications when engaging in routine activities such as visiting children at school or going to work. To maintain confidentiality of people receiving ID cards, the ordinance requires a third-party organization to handle that information. The arrangement would keep those records beyond reach of the Kansas Open Records Act.

Skeptics of the measure urged the commission to put the question to a countywide vote. The Kansas attorney general responded to the Unified Government’s action by calling for a state law prohibiting establishment of so-called “sanctuary” cities or counties in Kansas.

Mayor Tyrone Garner placed the ordinance on the Unified Government’s agenda to comply with a campaign promise not to continue bureaucratic delays that kept the proposed ordinance in limbo.

“Passing this ordinance is the right thing to do, not just for Wyandotte County, but it’s the right thing to do for peoples’ lives,” Garner said.

Commissioner Mike Kane, who was a “definite no” on the ordinance, speculated that supporters of the change weren’t being transparent about their ultimate goals.

“Some of the people pushing this — what are they really trying to do?” Kane said.

He said it was unfair for the mayor to spring the vote on commissioners and the public. He also said proponents of the ordinance ought to be made to secure signatures of 25% of participants in the last election so the question could be eligible for a countywide election.


Shining example

Randy Lopez, president of the school board in Kansas City, Kansas, told Unified Government commissioners the ordinance was rooted in a community plea for compassion, justice and inclusiveness. He said Wyandotte County had an opportunity to be a “shining example of forward thinking.”

Social worker Katie Jones said she interacted daily with residents of Wyandotte County who didn’t have access to an ID that would help them secure basic services in the community. The number of undocumented adults in the county was estimated at 14,000, and Jones said denial of basic rights to undocumented immigrants was damaging to the whole society.

Ordinance opponent Debbie Shaw, who said her great-grandparents immigrated to Kansas in the 1800s, said the policy would expand human trafficking and make the community less safe for documented residents.

“You are discriminating against the legal citizens of Wyandotte County,” she said. “This ordinance is treasonous. This ordinance is lunacy, absolute lunacy.”

Retired educator Mary Jean Grindel, who also spoke in opposition, vowed to contact unnamed individuals — saying only they weren’t in law enforcement — capable of intervening if the ordinance was adopted.

“While the immigration system is broken, fixing it the Bernie Sanders way is not the answer,” she said. “You have many frustrated, angry citizens right now.”

Unified Government Commissioner Andrew Davis, who voted for the ordinance, said meaning of the woman’s threat should be investigated.

“In light of events like Jan. 6, to me, that is absolutely unacceptable,” Davis said. “We will not allow the guise or masquerading of public comment to be an open invitation to threats, racism or white supremacy.”

Commissioner Tom Burroughs, who also serves in the Kansas House, voted against the measure. Burroughs said he had lingering questions about details of the ordinance and was convinced the Unified Government did a poor job educating county residents about the measure.

He said he’d received offensive emails from proponents and opponents of the ordinance. He said the comment by Davis about white supremacy was “out of line.”

“Name calling, race baiting, hate is what has started this,” Burroughs said.


Attorney general’s idea

Legal counsel for the Unified Government said the ordinance had a carve-out provision for the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office, because the city-county government didn’t have policy authority over the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Daniel Soptic said he wasn’t aware of his deputies participating in ICE raids since at least 2009.

In addition, Kansas City, Kansas, Police Chief Karl Oakman said the department couldn’t find records of officers taking part in ICE operations in recent years.

However, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is a Republican candidate for governor, said Friday that he was concerned about the ordinance impeding ability of local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law in Wyandotte County

He said the ordinance designated Wyandotte County “in some ways as a ‘sanctuary’ jurisdiction for illegal immigrants.” The emerging patchwork of policy created by local immigration politics is problematic, he said.

Schmidt said it wasn’t clear state law forbid the action taken by a majority of Unified Government commissioners. The Kansas Legislature has failed to adopt a statute banning sanctuary jurisdictions, he said.

“I believe it is now necessary and appropriate to do so, and I call upon the Legislature to enact a clear, strong and effective state law on this subject this year,” Schmidt said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.