Sen. Dennis Pyle, left, argued a bill banning sanctuary cities would help affirm trust in Kansas elections. Opponents of the bill argue it is destructive to immigrant communities and does not address any issue present in the state. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas senators Wednesday backed a measure prohibiting municipal governments from creating “sanctuary cities,” rejecting concerns about the speed the measure was moving through the Legislature.
House Bill 2717 is a response to action taken by the Unified Government of Kansas City/Wyandotte County to authorize municipal identification cards for undocumented people. The community’s Safe and Welcoming Act is intended to improve access to public services and allow undocumented immigrants to report crimes without the risk of deportation for them or their families.
But bill-backers, like Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who initiated the effort, and Secretary of State Scott Schwab, said the act has the potential to interfere with elections and other rights exclusive to Kansas citizens.
“We know that people out there’s confidence in the elections has fallen,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha. “We have a job to do and that is to restore that confidence in our rule of law.”
Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, found the concern for rule of law interesting given the fact the Senate was taking the unusual step of sending a bill approved by a committee straight to final action instead of general orders.
“I just want to make sure we all understand when talk about the rule of law that sometimes we even here seem to bend them a little bit,” Pittman said.
Senators approved the bill 29 to 10, just over 24 hours after hearing the bill and a week after it cleared the House 84 to 38. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk for consideration.
As of 2021, 12 states have enacted state-level laws prohibiting or restricting “sanctuary” jurisdictions. The Kansas Legislature has considered legislation to prohibit sanctuary cities across the state on several occasions, but none has passed.
Law enforcement officials in Wyandotte County have told legislators they have not joined U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on immigration raids in years.
Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, compared the Legislature approving bills that break down local control to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.
“I think we just do so many things to curb the power of the municipal,” he said.
After passage of the bill, Schmidt commended the Legislature for backing his proposal.
“Neither our nation’s broken immigration system nor the Biden administration’s ongoing failure to secure our national borders justifies a patchwork of local rules that prevent law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal officials,” Schmidt said. “Nor does it justify local governments issuing identification cards that can be used statewide but lack basic anti-fraud protections. This commonsense legislation should become law.”
A quick committee process
On Tuesday, a Kansas Senate committee took immediate action to advance the controversial bill, despite an issue with testimony and some concerns about a lack of deliberation.
During the hearing on the bill, only two members of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee confirmed they had read the Wyandotte ordinance carefully, with others saying they had glanced at it. Sen. Cindy Holscher asked to table the bill until there was time to assess the ordinance and the impact this action would have.
“I appreciate the fact that Wyandotte County has spent five years developing the Safe and Welcoming plan to address some of the issues in their community,” the Overland Park Democrat said. “We’ve spent roughly an hour on this situation, which really doesn’t seem just.”
Holscher’s efforts were quickly glossed over by Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican and chairman of the panel, who pivoted to a successful motion by Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, to approve the bill.
The hearing took place with less than a day’s notice, opponents of the bill told senators on the committee. Some, like Loud Light advocacy director Melissa Stiehler, were told the committee forgot to add several pieces of opponent testimony and, due to the error, they would not be allowed to testify.
In a tweet shortly after the committee voted to send the measure to the full Senate, Stiehler bashed the committee for passing the ordinance without reading the ordinance in detail or considering the testimony that was not added to the agenda.
“Ironically, my testimony was about how this bill is fundamentally anti-democratic,” Stiehler said. “I hate to be right.”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Hilderbrand defended the committee and staff for working as hard as they can to get all relevant materials prepared by the time of the hearing.
“You attack the process when you cannot attack the integrity of what’s in the bill,” Hilderbrand said.
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