Lawrence immigration activists worry as city’s sanctuary ordinance is in jeopardy

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Lawrence activists are concerned about a bill on its way to the governor’s desk that will nullify a city ordinance protecting community members regardless of their citizenship status.

Kansas legislators this week quickly passed House Bill 2717. It bars municipal governments from becoming “sanctuary cities,” or areas where the city governments have rules blocking cooperation with federal authorities such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The bill is in response to action taken by the Unified Government of Kansas City/Wyandotte County to authorize municipal ID cards for undocumented people, the Kansas Reflector reported Wednesday. That community’s Safe and Welcoming Act is intended to improve access to public services and allow undocumented immigrants to report crimes without the risk of deportation.

Lawrence has an immigration ordinance that includes protections that prohibit the city from considering citizenship status or collecting immigration-related information in order for people to access city services. It also limits local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration agents. 

Members of Sanctuary Alliance Lawrence, KS worked directly with city staff members over the course of about a year to refine the local ordinance, which city commissioners unanimously adopted in July 2020 and gave final approval on Sept. 15, 2020. 

“We championed the safety of our community by refusing to work with rogue agencies and worked with our city to draw a clear line between preventing criminal activity and staying away from civil violations that are not under the purview or safety concern of our local law enforcement,” the group said in a statement Thursday. 

Those backing HB 2717, such as Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who initiated the effort, and Secretary of State Scott Schwab, say the bill will help protect election security, the Reflector reported. 

But Sanctuary Alliance calls it “a blatant attack on all communities who have passed ordinances to protect community members from the dangerous tactics of federal immigration enforcement, including Lawrence.”

The state Senate approved HB 2717 on a vote of 29 to 10, and it cleared the House 84 to 38 — so even if Gov. Laura Kelly won’t sign the bill, it’s likely that legislators would still have the two-thirds majority needed to override her veto. 

Still, group members are pushing for Kelly to use her veto power. It would only take one member of the House of Representatives flipping their vote, or three senators, to prevent HB 2717 from passing and allow sanctuary ordinances enacted in Lawrence, Roeland Park and Kansas City to stand. 

Sanctuary Alliance members say the bill is an imposition on local rule and an infringement on municipalities’ rights to enact policy that supports the interests and concerns of the people who live in them.

“HB2717 is a dangerous piece of legislation aiming to punish communities who have stood up and said NO to the harmful and often deadly practices of our federal immigration system,” Sanctuary Alliance members wrote in their statement.

For group co-founder Mariel Ferreiro, the issue is personal. Ferreiro wrote testimony to the Legislature about her experience as the daughter of immigrants, witnessing the difficulties of navigating a new community, language barriers and “an unclear and untrustworthy path toward citizenship.”

“Stop the senseless xenophobic rhetoric created by those who live in imaginary fear. Support and respect local municipal government. Give families, like mine, the chance to succeed in this country,” Ferreiro wrote. 

The bill drew strong opposition before it passed the House, including written testimony from Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, Sheriff Jay Armbrister, and Commissioners Shannon Portillo and Shannon Reid. 

Valdez wrote that residents who don’t have federal documentation live in constant fear of “being detained, dehumanized and deported,” and therefore they are less likely to contact law enforcement when they are victims of crime. 

“HB 2717 is another example of the continued overreach of the attorney general, who purports to support local control but cannot stop himself from meddling when local governments disagree with his anti-humanitarian views and pandering to racists,” Valdez wrote. “Our community has chosen to be a sanctuary city, reflecting the values of our residents.”

Reid shared her perspective as a court advocate for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. She wrote that foreign-born Kansas residents “deserve the same level of access to systems & protection of the law that we enjoy.” 

But no testimony made it to a committee of senators considering the bill this week, and the full Senate approved it without pausing to read it, the Reflector reported.

Lawrence-area Reps. Mike Amyx, Barbara Ballard, Christina Haswood and Boog Highberger all voted against the bill. Sen. Marci Francisco also voted against the bill, and Sen. Tom Holland voted in favor of it. All are Democrats.

Here’s the full testimony of Douglas County elected officials:

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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