Stakeholders at a University of Kansas-hosted policy conference agreed Thursday that immigration and trade are essential to the Kansas economy, despite rhetoric emanating from Washington aimed at stymying the inflow of immigrants and renegotiating trade deals.
Panelists at the Kansas Economic Policy Conference said immigrant workers are vital in both highly-skilled tech sectors and Western Kansas agricultural businesses as rural towns lose population. They also advocated for continued international trade because of Kansas’ position as an exporter of food and airplane parts.
The comments come as President Donald Trump’s administration takes aim at free trade deals it claims are harmful to American workers and works to reduce lawful and unlawful immigration.
Keynote speaker Sasha Skiba, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, and other panelists said free trade deals can create winners and losers and have some negative effects, but the Kansas economy sees a boost.
“Trade and immigration create opportunities by complementing economic activities in Kansas, rather than substituting it, and even though there are gains and losses — undoubtedly there are winners and losers — Kansas seems to gain more than lose from the international trade,” Skiba said.
That’s because Kansas exports meats, farm commodities and machinery, like airplanes. According to Skiba’s presentation, 400,000 Kansas jobs — or 20 percent of the state’s jobs — are tied to trade. The state had a nearly $1 billion trade deficit last year, but its deficit made up a smaller part of the national one than does Kansas’ share of the economy.
Allie Devine, a lobbyist representing several agricultural organizations, said immigrants were essential to maintaining a labor force in rural Kansas and replaced vacancies but didn’t displace U.S.-born workers. She said she thought the country suffered from an overabundance of nationalism driven by some fact and some rhetoric.
“I have a few that will say, ‘Hey, we need all of these people to leave,’ and I say, ‘Then what will you do?’ ” Devine said.
Without immigrants, Devine said there would be no way to stimulate the economy, but she said some communities were concerned about seeing their demographics change through immigration.
“Where things start to change is where they understand they have no livelihood without change,” Devine said.
She said tough talk and immigration crackdowns also instilled fear in lawful immigrants who may have undocumented family members at home. She said they are inclined to go “underground.”
Republican state Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton farmer, said he thought many people in Western Kansas realized they needed immigrants to replace declining populations, but were concerned about changes to their communities. He said he thought efforts to deport unlawful immigrants could also mean lawful immigrants leave the country.
“It really could literally devastate the economy in a good part of the state,” Hineman said.
He said he was also frustrated by tough talk against free trade deals.
“It’s extremely delicate, and I think damage has already been done by brash talk about, ‘Hey, we’re getting screwed and we need to redo these deals,’ ” Hineman said. “When you say that, you put your trade partners on notice that we want to change the rules and it won’t be as sweet a deal as it was for you in the past, so those trade partners start looking around for other alternatives.”