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In U.S. Senate Race, Roberts And Orman Trade Questionable Claims On Immigration

Roberts for Senate

Immigration is emerging as one of the murkier issues in the intensifying race for the U.S. Senate in Kansas. 

The incumbent, Republican Pat Roberts, released a new ad this week targeting his challenger, Independent Greg Orman.

Amid dramatic music and images of people jumping a fence, the ad's female narrator says a “border crisis” and “illegal immigration” are “taking jobs away from Kansans who need them.”

“Politician Greg Orman would make things worse,” the narrator continues. “Now Orman is saying he’d give amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.”

The Orman campaign called the ad “desperate” and “misleading.”

Orman counters that he has called for immigration reform much like that of Republicans such as Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. There should be further security at the border, Orman says, but it’s impractical to think that the U.S. could deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

He shot back this week with an ad of his own, accusing Roberts of lying about his record and denying that he supports amnesty.

“The truth? Orman opposes amnesty,” the ad says. “He’ll secure the border with a plan that’s tough, practical and fair to taxpayers.”

In reality, the term "amnesty" has become meaningless in the immigration debate, says Daniel Kowalski, an attorney specializing in citizenship and visa law in Austin, Texas.

“It’s a dog-whistle word,” he said. “It signals to the restrictionist voter base that the person at whom the label is directed is soft on immigration.”

Kowalski says there are issues with both candidates' rhetoric.

For example, he cites Orman’s plan on his campaign website:

“The 11 million undocumented individuals in America should be required to register with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by a certain date, pay a fine or perform community service as an acknowledgment that they’ve broken the law, hold down a job, pay taxes, and obey our laws, and ultimately, at that point, if they want to get in line and apply for citizenship, they should be able to do so.”

Kowalski says that plan is confusing: Does Orman mean undocumented people would get to stay in the U.S. legally and get a work permit? Also, he says, Orman skips a step, because immigrants aren’t allowed to apply directly for citizenship, but must get green cards first, a process which can take years.

“If (Orman) wants to put people at the back of the line for green cards, then he’s effectively sentenced them to a decades-long wait,” he says. “If his plan is to mean anything, it has to include more visas.”

Roberts, meanwhile,  told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham last week that he has “fought amnesty every time. I will always fight amnesty.” He also said that he would “absolutely not” vote to “double the number of guest workers” in the U.S.

In fact, Roberts has voted for guest worker programs in the past. In 1996, when he was the House Agriculture Committee chairman, and later that year during his first year in the Senate, Roberts voted for a temporary farm workers program, according to the Hutchinson News:

In March 1996, the House Agriculture Committee voted 25-13 to create a temporary guest worker program to accommodate farm interests, according to The New York Times. Among those voting yes was Roberts, the House Agriculture Committee chairman. Less than a year later, Roberts entered the Senate. As a freshman senator, Roberts voted for a Temporary Farm Workers Amendment. Project Vote Smart described it as: “An amendment that would begin a federal job registry of temporary and seasonal jobs as well as a recommendation to create visas to allow more foreign workers into the United States for agricultural work.” “Roberts: Guestworker program needed,” read the headline in 2005 in The Hays Daily News. In 2011, Roberts said in a story carried by The Garden City Telegram that he supported an agriculture jobs bill that would allow people to come into the country on a temporary basis.

Those past votes were popular with the state’s agribusinesses, who are always desperate for workers in feedlots, dairies, meat processing plants and wheat harvesting.

The Kansas Business Coalition, a group that includes the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, has unsuccessfully pushed for a state-sanctioned work program for farm businesses. Last year the group brought in conservative activist Grover Norquist, who touted the plan as pro-business, pro-growth and offering respect for immigrants.

Now Roberts’ strict stance on illegal immigration has angered many of those people who welcomed those  votes. Agribusiness leaders are privately complaining, although their organizations are officially supporting Roberts.

Given those dynamics, Kowalski says it's questionable whether Roberts' ad will be effective with voters. Many of those who now use “amnesty” as a red flag often forget that then President Ronald Reagan offered it to undocumented workers in 1986, Kowalski says.

“You have to put people on the spot,” he says of candidates who campaign on the A-word, “and ask them: So do you think Reagan was wrong?”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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