DODGE CITY — José and Doreen Vargas spent several hours over the weekend passing out voter information at meatpacking plants and other local businesses.

"We just want to make sure that people know where to go and vote cause it's very important," José Vargas said.

The spotlight turned on Dodge City in mid-October after Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox moved the town's only polling site outside city limits. The ACLU of Kansas expressed concern and filed a lawsuit alleging Hispanic voters may be disproportionately impacted by the relocation.

Dodge City, which has a population of about 27,000, has undergone a dramatic demographic shift and is one of the state's few majority-minority towns.

As the controversy over the voting location unfolded, it has put the city's diversity in sharper focus.

With the direction of the state on the line in Tuesday's elections, José Vargas said he believes Dodge City may be particularly impacted by the outcome of the gubernatorial race. Republican candidate Kris Kobach has taken an aggressive line on illegal immigration with proposals to end in-state tuition for noncitizens and allow state police to enforce federal immigration law.

Democratic candidate Laura Kelly said securing borders is needed, but immigrants are important to the state's agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

José Vargas said towns like Dodge City have survived because immigrants have moved in, filling jobs with the meatpacking industry.

"I personally think these communities are alive because of the immigrants," he said.

 

Community relations

Mexican restaurants dot downtown Dodge City and Wyatt Earp Boulevard, the town's main thoroughfare, along with signs announcing various stores are "abierto," or open.

In the past few decades, the town has undergone striking changes. During the 1992-93 school year, 30 percent of the Dodge City school district student population was minority. In 2017-18, it had jumped to 83 percent.

Maria Rojas has lived in Dodge City for the past 20 years. She arrived not knowing English but said she had dedicated teachers and learned the language. In recent years, she has experienced "kind of a negative vibe," which she attributes to politics.

Rojas has two sons, ages 8 and 10. Her eldest is embarrassed to speak Spanish, telling her "Spanish sucks," she said.

"It's peer-based," she explained. "That's a struggle."

While Dodge City is generally welcoming, Hispanic community members said there have been isolated incidents where they have encountered a sense of disdain.

José Vargas said he has heard of disparaging comments about Dodge City becoming "Little Mexico."

Karim Acosta, who came to the United States in 2003 after seeking asylum from Venezuela, said she feels blessed to be here. But there have been run-ins where she was told to go back to her country.

Imelda Ahumada, speaking through translator Mary Marquez, said she has gotten looks while speaking Spanish.

Alejandro Lara said he has heard similar comments, like, "Go back to Mexico," and, "This is America, you're supposed to speak English."

"You get used to that," he said.

Lara said the local environment has worsened since President Donald Trump was elected.

"White people feel even more superior now that he's in office," Lara said.

José Vargas said the atmosphere under Trump has changed "big time," ushering in fear and apprehension.

"People don't want to invest, they don't want to buy a home, they don't want to buy an auto, because they say, 'What happens if they deport us?'" he said.

The Vargases, who have lived in Dodge City for nearly two decades, own a company that helps people with taxes and paperwork, such as power of attorney letters.

Doreen Vargas said they have seen an uptick in the number of "guardianship letters," which are written in case a parent gets detained or deported.

Some also believe immigrant community members, including those who are in the country legally, are targeted by police.

Melissa McCoy, assistant city manager, said the city has been welcoming to immigrants and made special efforts to provide services. Officials have brought U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Mobile Services to help area residents remain in compliance with their migratory status without having to travel to government offices in Wichita, Kansas City or Oklahoma.

At the end of October, the city hosted Mexican Consulate Mobile Services so more than 250 Mexican nationals could receive identification documents, McCoy said.

Representatives from several sectors also serve on the Cultural Relations Advisory Board. The committee recently hosted its annual Engage Dodge course, which provides awareness about local government and is held in English and Spanish.

The city has engaged in outreach efforts related to health and legal services and increased its efforts to hire bilingual employees, particularly for police and fire departments, McCoy said.

Additionally, the city has "taken an active stance" on issues like DACA, McCoy said, submitting letters of support for the program to state leaders. Last year, staff held a DACA clinic and assisted 14 recipients.

The city also backs a path to citizenship for "immigrants who are of good moral character and ready to become fully integrated in our communities," the city's 2018 Legislative Policy document reads. It indicates support for limited or restricted driver's licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented college students.

"Our community is thriving, and the Hispanic population not only fills critical jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture and hospitality sectors but these citizens of our community are business and property owners, as well as entrepreneurs," McCoy said. "Dodge City is one of the fastest growing communities in the state, and that is due in large part to our Hispanic population."

 

The midterms

Doreen Vargas said making a change to the voting place for Dodge City's 13,000 registered voters was deceiving.

"To me, that's how I saw it — as a political tactic to deviate people from voting," she said.

The late-September switch was confusing, José Vargas said, and it was compounded after Cox, the county clerk, sent out notifications listing the incorrect polling address.

The voting site was relocated, Cox explained, because of planned construction at the Civic Center.

"There is no construction going on there now," Doreen Vargas said.

Cox testified last week that she decided to move the location after being informed of construction that would start in October and couldn't foresee that it would be delayed.

Several people the Vargases spoke with as they handed out voter information didn't know about the location change.

"A lot of people that I encountered today were asking, 'Well, where do we go vote?'" Doreen Vargas said Saturday. "So there's confusion upon confusion in the community."

José Vargas said a lot of information is available for English speakers but not for those in the Hispanic community.

Ahumada said she wants to vote Tuesday to do something for the community and the country, and to express herself as a Hispanic community member. She said she doesn't know the new polling location but that a friend will take her.

Bob Beatty, Washburn University political science professor, said the controversy in Dodge City shows how much geography can affect voter access.

"Moving the one polling station to the outskirts of town in Dodge City is absurd, and the Ford County election officials have rightly been the subject of national mockery and heckling," he said, adding that the move may prompt some constituents to "want to have a word with their elected officials."

Others don't see much of a problem.

A man who voted early and declined to give his name said he didn't understand what all the "hoopla" was about, and that voting is a right and a privilege for people who are here legally.

Daja Hall-Gonzalez, an 18-year-old college student, voted for the first time by dropping off an advance ballot at the Ford County government office. She said voting "was awesome" and didn't think the polling location change was a big deal.

Acosta, the Venezuela native, said she has heard complaints about the location change but doesn't see it as a major issue, especially coming from a country where elections were downright corrupt.

As voters consider the options on their ballot, immigration appears to be a critical issue for parts of western Kansas with rhetoric that may sway some voters.

At an Oct. 26 campaign stop in Hutchinson, someone suggested to Kobach that children should be required to speak English before entering school. Kobach called it "a common sense idea."

"We Americans get this," Kobach said.

Although Lara is a Republican, he said he was turned off by interviews he saw featuring Kobach and decided to vote independent this year.

Acosta said she opposes Trump's proposal to revoke citizenship of babies born in the United States.

Other topics that were important in considering candidates included education and taxes.

 

Civic participation

Although a federal judge last week struck down the ACLU's request to keep the polling location open within city limits for Tuesday's election, the organization said it will continue to push other parts of the lawsuit.

According to the ACLU, Dodge City has one polling place for 13,000 registered voters while the average location in Kansas serves 1,200 assigned voters.

"There was a long line out there," José Vargas said of voting in the 2016 presidential elections.

People weren't complaining because they wanted to vote, he said, but Dodge City should have two or three locations. Others, like Rojas, agree that more polling sites should be available.

According to a September 2018 study published in the Election Law Journal, Kansas is the ninth most difficult state to vote in.

Another hurdle is raising awareness about the importance of voting. Doreen Vargas said there is still a mindset among many Latino people that voting won't make a difference. She thinks the national attention on Dodge City has helped show that voting is important.

"They need to go out there, they need to vote, they need to know who's who and what these persons are doing or want to do," José Vargas said.

Many Hispanic community members would also like to see minorities in positions of elected power. The ACLU said there are no minority elected office holders in the county, despite the Hispanic community's population advantage.

"That imbalance has been a big problem in Dodge," Rojas said, adding that she recognizes that is a responsibility for the Hispanic community to figure out.

José Vargas said he doesn't feel represented.

"That's another thing we need to do something about," he said.