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In Kansas, a trifecta of xenophobia does nothing to help the humanitarian crisis 700 miles away

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In Kansas, a trifecta of xenophobia does nothing to help the humanitarian crisis 700 miles away

Feb 11, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By Max McCoy
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In Kansas, a trifecta of xenophobia does nothing to help the humanitarian crisis 700 miles away
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Immigrants line up at a remote U.S. Border Patrol processing center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Dec. 7, 2023, in Lukeville, Arizona. (Getty Images)

Why did Kansas lawmakers waste time passing a nonbinding resolution about a crisis more than 700 miles from our state’s border when there are so many more pressing issues to deal with at home?

It’s the same reason a bill was introduced in the Kansas Senate to outlaw foreign land ownership and why some individuals lost their minds over a Topeka initiative to attract workers to the city.

In a word, xenophobia.

There’s some political calculus involved for the red state faithful, to be sure, but none of the posturing and hand-wringing would be of value if the legislators weren’t callously exploiting a xenophobic bent in the American soul.

Since at least the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, American politicians have leveraged the hatred of others to gain or keep power. The historic intolerance has been directed at nearly all manner of “outsiders,” from Irish Catholics to Jewish intellectuals to Black preachers. Now the hate is directed toward Spanish-speaking asylum seekers, Chinese nationals and anybody who might suggest that leveling of the Gaza Strip might not be in line with the Biblical teachings of Jesus.

Like the original Know Nothings, our current crop of culturally challenged churls exploit cultural turmoil in the name of patriotism. Unlike the Know Nothings, aka the “Native American Party,” which lasted only a decade, these grifters are likely to be with us awhile longer. Eventually, voters will either wise up and throw the bums out — or they will bring democracy crashing down on all of our heads.

The Kansas House resolution to support Texas in its conflict with the federal government over border control passed 80-40 on Wednesday. It was a rather pointless exercise that sucked up a lot of legislative hours and some puzzlement over what constituted a “prop” but otherwise had no meaningful purpose. Well, the House did formally adopt a rule that for the sake of decorum, props couldn’t be used during debate, and that holding a copy of the actual bill to be debated qualified as the use of a prop. This important action was taken because Minority Leader Vic Miller, D-Topeka, dared to have a copy of the resolution in his hand while speaking.

The resolution, sponsored by more than 60 members, urged Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, to “offer the services of the Kansas National Guard to the state of Texas.” The resolution also “affirmed state sovereignty” and accused the Biden administration of not only failing to protect the country from an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants, but of prohibiting Texas from defending itself.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, Texas has placed razor wire and other barriers (some underwater) along a 29-mile stretch of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. Federal authorities have said the razor wire endangers border agents and prevents them from giving aid to migrants in peril. In January, a mother and two children drowned in an attempt to cross. The Supreme Court, late last month, ruled that federal agents could remove the razor wire.

In response to the resolution, Kelly said the border is under federal jurisdiction and Kansas troops would only be dispatched if ordered by the president. Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. Senate refused to advance a bipartisan border security bill, a measure that is also tied to military aid for Ukraine. The bill would also strip Texas and other states of much of their power to challenge border jurisdiction in federal courts.

Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, successfully carried a nonbinding resolution asking Gov. Laura Kelly to consider deploying Kansas National Guard troops and Kansas law enforcement officers to the U.S.-Mexico border to show solidarity with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's fight with the Biden administration to secure the border. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, successfully carried a nonbinding resolution asking Gov. Laura Kelly to consider deploying Kansas National Guard troops and Kansas law enforcement officers to the U.S.-Mexico border to show solidarity with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s fight with the Biden administration to secure the border. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“Let us make no mistake, the state of Texas and all the states on our southern border with Mexico are being invaded,” said Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, during the Kansas House’s wide-ranging debate. “It’s not just those from Mexico looking for a better life. It’s people from all over the world, including military-age males from China and the Middle East.”

The paranoia about men of military age aside, Proctor’s statement is a masterwork of cognitive dissonance. People from all over the world are coming here looking for a better life. We can’t have that, can we? Do not, repeat not, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And keep your filthy feet off our side of the river.

The border crisis, make no mistake, is an actual crisis. But it’s not a military or criminal invasion, it’s a humanitarian emergency. Economic and political unrest in Central and South America (not Mexico) have driven migrants to seek asylum in the United States. The numbers are their highest in two decades, and with such numbers come some criminals and some drugs. But not all asylum seekers are drug runners, felons, or saboteurs. Sadly, the influx of refugees at the U.S. border is similar to what is happening with other displaced populations around the globe.

Because the party of Trump knows Biden’s handling of the border is widely seen as a weakness, they have seized every opportunity to use immigration as a political wedge. That’s why they blew up the bipartisan immigration deal, to nurse a little more mileage out of the situation, and why they tried — but failed — to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

The immigration wedge also explains a new Kansas Senate bill, endorsed by Republican Attorney General Kris Kobach, that would ban foreign purchases of land equal to or greater than three acres.

“It’s not just China, it’s also Mexican drug cartels,” Kobach said recently in endorsing the bill. “Mexican drug cartels have purchased a huge amount of land in Texas, Oklahoma and California.”

The bill would set up a five-member “state land council” to review requests for exemptions. Those who would sit on the council, or their designees, would include the attorney general, the adjutant general, the governor, the secretary of state and the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

State Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican, who appeared with Kobach to endorse the bill, said it was a way to protect Kansans while allowing “good” people from other countries to invest in Kansas land.

Kobach has backed similar bills before and, in 2019, was under consideration as Trump’s immigration czar. That position, of course, went to Stephen Miller, who backed separating families at the border and was called the “Angel of Darkness” in a profile published by Vanity Fair.

When Kobach was asked to provide evidence of cartel influence or the presence of foreign entities, the Reflector’s Rachel Mipro reported, the attorney general demurred, saying the activities were hard to track and under-reported. Sounds similar to Kobach’s claims that undocumented immigrants were driving illegal voting in Kansas, claims that he couldn’t back up in federal court.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach announced a new attempt to ban foreign ownership of Kansas farmland during a Feb. 6, 2024 news conference. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach announced a new attempt to ban foreign ownership of Kansas farmland during a Feb. 6, 2024 news conference. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

To fill our trifecta of xenophobia, there was the overblown coverage of the “Choose Topeka” initiative of $15,000 to help workers relocate to the city.

Tomi Lahren, a former One America News Network host who later joined Fox News, blasted Topeka for inviting undocumented migrants with a lure of thousands in cash and other perks. Lahren, who said the highlight of her 2018 Thanksgiving was watching the U.S. Border Patrol fire tear gas at migrants, asserted Topeka was just being honest about what the Biden administration was already up to in luring the undocumented to sanctuary cities.

The Topeka initiative was also the subject of critical coverage in the U.K.’s Daily Mail and other outlets. Problem was, the program — which began in 2019 — is only available to those who are legally able to work and live in Topeka. Just 150 have qualified for the program, and only 10 percent of the effort is targeted to Spanish speakers. There are no buses from the border, no luxury apartments, no free cell phones. Sorry, Tomi.

All of this is bad enough in itself. It’s the kind of hateful rhetoric we should be ashamed of, not trying to make into law. But there is a larger danger lurking beneath the low-hanging swipes at Biden’s immigration policy.

The state of Texas is still on a collision course with the federal government over control of the border. The Supreme Court vacated, by 5-4, an injunction from a federal appeals court that prevented federal border patrol agents from cutting concertina wire. That’s all. It was a temporary win for the Biden administration and the standoff is far from over.

But the Kansas House resolution, while having no teeth, could serve to egg Texas on.

The language that Gov. Abbott is using is nothing short of incendiary. It is the kind of language one would expect to precede armed conflict.

“President Biden’s reckless open border policies have created an ongoing crisis at our southern border as record levels of illegal immigrants and deadly drugs pour into Texas,” says Abbott’s official state website. “…While the federal government ignores this crisis, Texas is holding the line.”

And that bit about affirming “state sovereignty” in the Kansas resolution?

Something similar was cited in the preamble to the Constitution of the Confederate States in 1861.

Yes, states are sovereign in the modern sense that they are self-governing, but that right to self-determination has a limit when it comes up against federal jurisdiction. States cannot nullify federal law. An example of a state trying to nullify was in Arkansas in 1958, when it attempted to block the desegregation of schools under Brown v. Board. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a Democrat, lost that one.

A similar showdown is brewing in Texas.

But the immigration crisis is different than the desegregation crisis in several ways. We are not far out from the Jan. 6 insurrection, the border crisis tends to draw a lot of citizen militia types with damned good weaponry, and there’s a presidential election just around the corner that might determine the fate of American democracy. In addition, Texas has its own Department of the Military, with its own state guard in addition to National and Air Guard troops. Its motto is “Duty. Honor. Texas.” About half of all states have their own armies.

I’m not saying the next Civil War will begin in Texas, but the potential for an armed conflict between a state and the federal government is likely higher than it’s been for about, I don’t know, 163 years.

The Kansas House needs to spend less time on decorum and more time on curbing dangerous and xenophobic rhetoric.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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