By LAURA ZIEGLER
Kansas News Service
A crowd of roughly 75 activists and community leaders waved signs and cheered earlier this month as four members of Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte Coalition unfurled a paper banner on the plaza of the Unified Government municipal building downtown.
The phrase "Safe And Welcoming," hand-written in capital letters and colored in yellow and red, is a reference to a proposed ordinance that would provide identification to those without legal documents, the homeless, formerly incarcerated, those who are older, lack financial resources and other vulnerable populations.
“We have a lot of people who don’t have any legal way to identify themselves,” said Valeria Espadas, a community activist and one of the rally organizers. “You want to enroll your kid in school? You need an ID. You want a library card, a (Board of Public Utilities) account, you need an ID.”
But it’s the second part of the ordinance that’s been controversial. Along with a municipal ID, the ordinance would prohibit local law enforcement from coordinating with immigration authorities except in the case of fugitives or those with dangerous criminal records. Organizers have dubbed this part of the effort as "ICE non-compliance."
Efforts to pass the ordinance have been ongoing for several years, but David Alvey, mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, says he cannot support it. Some of his opponents in the upcoming mayoral election, however, say they're open to the idea.
Wyandotte Co. tops state for ICE detainees
Almost 17% of Wyandotte County’s population between 2015 and 2019 were foreign-born,
and although it’s impossible to get exact figures, advocates and attorneys say a high number of those individuals lack legal residency papers.
Data collected by Syracuse University's TRAC Immigration information system indicates Kansas had the third highest percentage nationally of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees with no other criminal convictions through 2018. In Kansas, 71% of those detained by ICE were not convicted of an offense. (Missouri holds the number one spot, with 74% of its detainees held without any prior criminal record.)
Coalition member Yasmin Bruno Valdez says she was living in the U.S. without legal status for 10 years before being granted status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program just last month. Wyandotte County has the most ICE detainees of any county in Kansas, and Valdez says she and others see an intimate relationship between ICE and local law enforcement, claiming police and the sheriff’s office notify immigration authorities when suspects are detained or released.
As a result, Valdez says many live under the radar, skipping doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences or opportunities to speak out in public. The non-compliance mandate, she says, would help coax some out of the shadows.
“(It) would be the first step to not only protect undocumented folks, but to also create a sense of belonging,” she said. “Undocumented people deserve to feel safe.”
Law enforcement officials deny working with ICE
Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash denies his office coordinates with immigration authorities.
“We are not holding on civil detainers and we’re not holding people until ICE comes to pick them up,” Ash said in an interview. “If there is a judicial warrant, that’s different, we will hold like we would for any other jurisdiction, but our policy is restrictive on what we can, can’t or won’t do in terms of working with ICE.”
The Kansas City, Kansas, police department similarly said their interaction with federal authorities is “very limited.” In an email to KCUR, Acting Chief Michael York said officers enforce only city ordinances and state statues and only coordinate with ICE on criminal investigations or if a violent offender has fled across borders.
York said the inability to verify identification does not “automatically raise questions of legal status,” and that KCK police are not involved in detention release or bond hearings.
“To say that the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department aggressively cooperates with immigration officials and thus supports unnecessary deportation is not only incorrect, but does a great disservice to our community by fostering fear that may discourage immigrants and undocumented people from reporting crimes, showing up for public meetings, and other activities in which they may encounter law enforcement,” the email stated.
An issue in the mayoral campaign
The immigration issue has become part of the political debate in the 5-way race for Kansas City, Kansas, mayor.
Incumbent Mayor Alvey has said he can not support the ordinance because of preexisting contracts with federal authorities. Signing on to the non-compliance provision would violate the terms of federal grants that require state and federal law collaboration, including with immigration authorities.
“We cannot codify a statement saying we will not work with any agency because that’s in fact what we signed off on the grant, he said. “I understand the Biden administration is not adding that criteria into new grant requirements, that’s a different matter, but existing agreements are already in place so I can’t do that.”
Tyrone Garner, a mayoral candidate and former deputy chief with the Kansas City, Kansas, police department has endorsed the ordinance, as has District Attorney Mark Dupree.
Mayoral candidate Janice Witt said she'd like the Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte ordinance to extend beyond the immigrant community. "To be safe and welcoming to everyone," she told television station KMBC, "is a human right."
Candidate Chris Steineger, a former state senator from Wyandotte County, opposes the measure.
KCUR was unable to reach candidate Daran Duffy for comment.
Residents continue to focus their attention on the current administration.
At this month's rally, Pastor Rick Behrens of Grandview Park Presbytarian Church led a chant aimed squarely at the mayor.
"Mayor Alvey, can you hear it?" he boomed from the podium. The crowd, who is calling for the UG government to hold a special hearing with public testimony on the ordinance before the upcoming election, joined in.
"Mayor Alvey can you hear it? Can you hear our mighty spirit?"
Laura Ziegler has been a producer with NPR in Washington D.C. and national NPR reporter covering the Midwest. Currently she’s a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR. Email her at [email protected] or reach her on Twitter @laurazig.