Congressman Roger Marshall met with Garden City officials and residents on Tuesday at Garden City Community College for a round-table discussion of immigration issues, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the forthcoming H2-C visas.
Marshall said that upon his arrival in Washington, the political atmosphere was icy when it came to immigration. But a few weeks ago, the H-2C visa program, a replacement to the existing H-2A visa, passed through the House Judiciary Committee, but not without taking a few hits from the political right and losing all of its support from Democrats.
An affirmation of the foreign-born workforce, the H2-C visa proposal would make key changes to the existing H2-A visa. It would shift administration of the program from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services branch to the USDA, increase the visa duration to 36 months, increase the number of eligible foreign agricultural workers to 450,000 and remove mandates requiring host employers to pay for transportation and housing.
Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., noted that Garden City's experience with the immigrant workforce population has been expressly positive.
“Our experience has been different, but I think that’s largely because we chose to make our experience different,” she said. “For us, economically we understand that every job that an immigrant fills is directly responsible for another job being created within our communities. I think that’s a difficult concept for some people to get, but if you get right down to it, every job that is available in this community is somehow tied back to agriculture.”
She added that virtually the only growth in Kansas has been resultant of an increase in the immigrant population, “and until we recognize that and respect that and provide proper mechanisms for those folks to come here and be a part of our solution, we can’t expect anything different. We have to fight. We’re the only ones who can.”
Other attendees at the round table included but were not limited to Mayor Melvin Dale, City Manager Matt Allen, local immigration lawyer Eloy Gallegos, USD 457 Deputy Superintendent Heath Hogan, future Garden City Chamber of Commerce President Myca Bunch, GCCC President Herbert Swender and Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz.
Three local immigrants who have a track record of success were also present. Jocelyn Ismerio, an officer at the local Western State Bank, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico five years ago. She said she is working to help her husband and son become citizens. She gained her citizenship earlier this year, and said her family has spent about $10,000 on the citizenship process.
“It’s sad to hear my 7-year-old ask, ‘Mom, are we going to be allowed to be here to stay?’” she said, “because of what he hears and what he’s being exposed to.”
David Loewen of Loewen Farms is a German Mennonite who moved to the U.S. in 1994 when he was 18. After 9/11, he said he couldn’t renew his driver’s license until he got a green card in 2015 and became a permanent resident. Of southwest Kansas, he said, “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world.”
“I started my own business in 2005,” he said. “I was to the point where I needed to sell everything and move because I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t get loans anymore, because if you can’t show a valid license, that becomes an issue. I couldn’t get myself to leave. I came from making $1 an hour. In 2015, I made $1 million. How do you give all that up and leave the country?”
He said he has five full-time employees at his ag operation, two of whom are seeking legal status.
Marshall noted that current undocumented immigrants working in agriculture in the U.S. would not count against the cap of 450,000 workers eligible for the H2-C visa, which agencies like the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA criticize as a type of amnesty for workers in agribusiness residing illegally in the U.S.
But after pressure from anti-immigration groups in opposition to the bill, committee members changed the bill to require E-Verify, a program that allows employers to determine eligibility of employees to legally work in the U.S., to be implemented by business owners before the rest of the bill’s benefits would go into effect for their workforce, Marshall said.
“It requires E-Verify immediately before we have the H2-C program up and in place,” he said. “Certainly I understand what a predicament that would be to a lot of employers here in town, so I’m going to continue to fight hard to flip that so we get the H2-C started before we go to mandatory E-Verify.”
Another stipulation of the bill is that workers would have to spend 45 days in their home country throughout the three-year visa duration to basically check in, Marshall said.
But even with the added limitations, the bill affords better options to foreign workers with aspirations of lending their skills to the U.S. market.
“We’re trying to find a legal status for people that want to work, people that want to live the American Dream,” Marshall said. “We got it out of committee, we lost every Democrat on it, and because of that we had to throw it further to the right to make sure we got all the Republican votes.”
President Donald Trump gave Congress a six-month window in September to find a legislative “fix” to the DACA program enacted by former President Barack Obama through an executive order that gives foreign-born immigrants who entered the country illegally as minors a two-year renewable deferral on deportation.
Marshall commended the president’s ultimatum, explaining that Congress doesn’t “respond” to directives without “a gun at their head.” He also commended the president on his efforts to improve border security, saying it has improved by “60, 70, 80 percent” since Trump took office.
Marshall said after the round table that he is confident Trump intends to work out a legislative solution for DACA that doesn’t involve repeal.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jocelyn Ismerio's name.
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.