In November, President Obama announced sweeping changes to immigration policy via executive action.
The action, which protects about 4.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States from deportation, has been met with controversy nationwide.
But Hispanic communities in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., say the measure is a step in the right direction.
Latino immigrants bring new life to dying Kansas City neighborhoods
Thirty years ago, when the Rev. Rick Behrens, who leads Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, began working near the Central Avenue corridor of Kansas City, Kan., he thought it was destined to be a ghost town.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, nobody had any thought that there was a future for Central Avenue. Everyone was leaving. Businesses were closing down, there were lots of vacant storefronts, it was a bleak situation,” Behrens says.
All of that changed with the arrival of immigrants from Central America and Mexico in the 1990s, he says.
Hispanics came to the area and started buying homes — before long, schools that had closed re-opened and businesses along Central Avenue stated bustling again.
“The interesting thing is, I think the vacuum created by the people and the businesses that left created an opportunity for folks who were looking for a new place to start, people who wanted to be here,” Behrens says.
Today, the neighborhoods around Central Avenue are mostly Hispanic, and a walk along Central easily confirms that. Spanish signs and storefronts line the blocks and Spanish is the primary language heard inside businesses. Latin music floats out onto the busy street as people go in and out of shops.
But if you go to a community meeting in the neighborhood, the Hispanic presence is mostly absent.
Behrens thinks people shy away from neighborhood meetings because they’re still unsure about their status in the community. He thinks they still don’t feel welcome or accepted, but he hopes the president’s executive action will begin to change those attitudes.
What the executive action means to Hispanic communities
“It’s time for the Hispanic community, the immigrant community, to come out of the shadows,” says Edgar Galicia, chair of the Central Avenue Betterment Association, or CABA.
CABA is dedicated to supporting the community and helping businesses get started along Central Avenue. Galicia says that the executive action will allow Hispanics to engage more in their communities both economically and socially by allowing them to take out home loans and make an investment in their neighborhoods.
“They will look for possibilities to buy properties, restore them, and pay taxes,” Galicia says.
The action could also serve to add value to education.
Andres Dominguez, a healthcare administrator and an education advocate for Hispanic communities in the Kansas City area, says that the opportunity to find employment legally after high school will encourage more Hispanic students to graduate.
“We still have some of the highest drop-out rates, especially among [Hispanic] boys, but if you’re undocumented, what’s the point?” Dominguez says.
But for Evangelia Sanchez, who moved to Central Avenue ten years ago, it’s as simple as being able to drive to work without the fear of not coming home to her husband and four children.
“Those of us who qualify will be able to get our driver’s licenses, which is the first thing we want — to be able to drive without the fear of what will happen if we get pulled over,” she says, speaking in Spanish.
Sanchez, Dominguez, Garcia, and Behrens all agree that the executive action is not the answer. Many undocumented immigrants are left unprotected and comprehensive immigration reform is still a thing of the future. But for Hispanic communities on both sides of the state line, there’s hope.
“It’s just one step. But it’s more than what we have now, and we feel closer to the opportunity of something bigger, something more permanent,” says Sanchez.
This look at Hispanic communities in Missouri and Kansas is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR.