By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — A Missouri Senate panel wants to know why the state is having such a hard time attracting legal immigrants.
Try this number: $30,000.
That’s the minimum that Gustavo Valdez, diocesan director of Hispanic Ministry, estimates he has spent over the last 10 years just to maintain legal status as he worked first as a missionary, then later as an employee of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
In Kansas City, he met and married his wife, U.S.-born Brandi. When sons Gustavo Jr., and Francisco came along, Valdez was finally able, after seven years legally in the United States, to get his permanent resident alien card and a path to citizenship.
And that ended the annual, required trips back to Mexico to get his visa renewed — at a cost of $3,000 each trip, not counting legal fees.
He could afford that, barely, when he was young and single, Valdez told three Missouri Senators at a Nov. 30 hearing at Kansas City’s Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center.
“I didn’t have too many personal expenses to cover so I was able to save money for all my immigration obligations,” Valdez said.
But what about those immigrants who are harvesting food, working in feedlots, and doing manual, seasonal work at minimum wage or barely above, he asked.
“I know many people who are in a different situation,” he said. “When they cannot meet some of the requirements for entering the U.S. such as having a high education or financial stability, many with spouses and children have a tough time following all the rules and regulations of the current immigration laws.”
Many don’t choose to become “illegal,” Valdez said. They don’t have the financial means to stay “legal.”
“In the State of Missouri, there are so many undocumented immigrants struggling with jobs and opportunities because of their immigration status,” Valdez said. “When I talk to them, I do not see criminals, but simply good people trying to feed their kids and looking for the common good and a better life.”
Those immigrants, legal and otherwise, are contributing to Kansas City, said Bobbi Baker of the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which has seen an influx of immigrants from all over the world that has revitalized the area.
“The revitalization that has happened of homes, neighborhoods and businesses has been phenomenal in the blood, sweat and tears of these immigrants to bring this area back,” Baker said.
“They choose to make homes and businesses in our community from homes and businesses that were left behind and would be vacant without them,” Baker said.
Lynda Callon, of the Latino Civic Engagement Collaborative, told the senators that 47 languages are spoken throughout northeast Kansas City, which is roughly the area between I-70 and the Missouri River, and I-435 and downtown.
She invited the senators to drive down Independence Boulevard and see the economic impact for themselves, as businesses begun by recent immigrants line the boulevard.
“It would be nothing but boarded-up businesses without them,” Callon said. “This is a population that is not only rebuilding their lives, they are rebuilding the community.”
Callon, however, warned that when immigrants, whether they are legal or not, hear about bills designed to “crack down” and criminalize illegal immigrants, they react in fear.
“They feel the hostility. They feel the hatred,” she said. “They feel it is being directed at them, whether they are legal or not.”
Callon urged the senators to do nothing. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed at the federal level, and when states act to “crack down,” it is often with unexpected and disastrous results.
“Missouri is at zero population growth without immigrants,” she said. “We are a consumer-based economy, and we don’t have the consumers to consume. Immigrant refugee families are young families. They are high-consuming people in addition to physically rebuilding our communities.”
Axel Fuentes, director of the Center for a New Community, spoke of the irony of Missouri agriculture using cheap migrant labor, while Missouri law prohibits those workers from getting a driver’s license.
“I don’t think it’s fair to harvest food or serve food in a restaurant when they can’t even drive to a grocery store to get food for their own families because our state won’t let them have a driver’s license,” he said.
He also said it makes no sense for the state to prohibit children not born in the United States but who have grown up and graduated high school here to obtain higher education in any of Missouri’s public universities, or access to health care through Medicaid.
“It is not easy to improve your education or to make the community healthy when we are denied education and access to health care,” he said.
“How is that going to improve our economy?” Fuentes said.
Rebecca Hinman, program manager for the Human Rights Office of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, told the Senate panel that the number of undocumented workers in Missouri increased by 62 percent since 2000. Because of punitive measures that penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers, even legal, college-educated immigrants are finding it difficult to find employment, she said.
But Hinman also noted that when immigrants are given a path to citizenship and take it, they are quick to achieve and succeed in their new land.
“Naturalized citizens have higher educational attainments, they are less likely to live in poverty compared to non-citizens, and they are drastically less likely to have problems with the English language,” Hinman said.
She recommended that the state sponsor English as a Second Language classes for newly arrived immigrants, and also urged the state to publish a list of “reputable immigration attorneys to assist immigrants that seek legal help.”
Hinman also urged the state to rescind the executive order, first issued by former Gov. Matt Blunt, that urged state and local law enforcement officers to detain and conduct document searches on people only suspected of being illegal.
“The Diocese and the Human Rights Office is passionate about working for our immigrant brothers and sisters because of what our Catholic faith tells us, but also because it makes sense for Missouri’s economy,” Hinman said.
“Catholic social teaching recognizes that sovereign nations have the right to protect their own borders,” she said.
“People of faith also believe that people have a right to migrate to support themselves and their families,” Hinman said.
“Our hope is that Missouri legislation will take a greater step towards providing more opportunities for our immigrants, if only for the simple fact that immigrants in Missouri better the state as a whole.”
The Kansas City hearing was attended by Republican Sens. John Lamping of Ladue and Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit, and Democratic Sen. Shalonn “Kiki” Curls of Kansas City. Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City monitored the hearing by cell phone. The other member of the panel is Republican Sen. Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City.
The hearing was the second of three. The panel held its first hearing in St. Louis and will hold another in Springfield before reporting to the Senate President Pro Tem on Jan. 31.