About the Article*: This essay represents the combined thinking of the Complicating the Narratives Thought Partners, a diverse group of 10 Kansans convened by The Journal and the Kansas Leadership Center through funding from the Solutions Journalism Network. It does not reflect the views of any one individual or organization. It is an effort by the group to call for healthier dialogue with a single voice despite our differences and unique experiences. 

About the partners: The Complicating the Narratives Thought Partners were chosen from a group of about 125 applicants to assist The Journal in developing its coverage of immigration and demographic change.

They are: Alba Gutierrez-Ortiz, Dodge City; Clemente Bobadilla-Reyes, Wichita; David Sotelo, Hutchinson; Inas Younis, Overland Park; Jim Terrones, Olathe; Josey Hammer, Courtland; Mark Lowry, Stockton; Marty Hillard, Topeka; Peggy Ruebke, Nickerson; and Reynaldo Mesa, Garden City. 

*This article was written by Journal Executive Editor Chris Green on behalf of the Complicating the Narratives Thought Partners

The debate over immigration and demographic change in this state, not to mention this country, too often feels adversarial and fruitless.

A generation of us, at least, has known immigration only as an issue that faces gridlock. Politicians come and go but the conflict never ends, and the baseline of what we’re discussing rarely advances past stale talking points and bromides. 

A recent case-in-point: the enactment of House Bill 2350 in the Kansas Legislature this past session. Many lawmakers and law enforcement professionals saw it as an uncontroversial piece of legislation that would crack down on the crime of human smuggling. Many prominent advocates for Latino immigrants seemed caught off-guard by the measure and see vague language that might be used to target immigrants and lead to discrimination against Latinos.

It might be hard for either side to see reality through the other’s eyes. Especially now that support or opposition to legislation is being filtered through partisan lenses that push us to view a wide array of issues through red-blue dichotomies.

In raw numbers, the U.S. is among the world’s most generous countries when it comes to immigration, as The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins reported recently, welcoming some 800,000 new citizens every year and giving temporary residency to millions more. Since 1980, the U.S. has also accepted more refugees – about 3 million – than any other country, according to the Pew Research Center. (Our country’s standing, however, falls markedly when immigration is calculated relative to a percentage of the overall population.)

Immigration is part of our country’s story, but our willingness to let people in is still not enough to satisfy the demand, which prompts hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, to attempt to enter the country illegally every year.

Now, a record influx of migrants at the southern U.S. border is overwhelming our immigration systems and testing our political will to fix them. Growing numbers of people seeking asylum, meaning they immigrate to seek protection from persecution or harm, are a big reason why.

President Joe Biden’s administration contends that the increase is being driven by political and economic turmoil that migrants face in their home countries, especially in Central and South America. But the administration’s critics, which include conservatives and immigration skeptics but also some fellow Democrats, argue that it’s being driven by more lenient immigration policies and rhetoric that encourages immigration. More than 2.5 million people – close to the population of the entire state of Kansas – were allowed in during the first half of Biden’s term. 

In any event, strains are being felt across the country, from border towns tasked with initially managing influxes of people to large cities – New York City, Miami, Chicago – that have to help house, clothe and feed them. Filkins, The New Yorker writer, paints a picture of a country with too few agents to patrol the border, too little space to house migrants as they await adjudication, a backlogged court system that takes years to navigate and demoralizes immigrants, profit-seekers who aim to make money circumventing border controls and a political system paralyzed by hostility between Democrats and Republicans.

There’s nothing particularly special about the polarization around a measure such as HB 2350 in Kansas. That’s just the way things are. But over the past six months, our small group of Kansans has been experimenting with creating a different kind of conversation around the topics of immigration and demographic change by going deeper.

It’s a conversation that we’ve found challenging, rewarding and enlightening. And if you’re one of those people who is fed up with the status quo, we invite you to join us in this conversation. Because we believe that now is the time for us to act in service of making the most of our changing communities here in Kansas. 

Illustration of people of different backgrounds with speech bubbles overlapping between them
Credit: Illustration by Anthony Russo

Becoming ‘thought partners’

It all started last fall, when we came together for the first time on a Zoom. We were 10 Kansans of different backgrounds hailing from very different parts of the state. Some of us live in small cities in rural northern Kansas, such as Courtland and Stockton.

Others joined from regional hubs in the central and southwest, namely Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City. Urban areas such as Wichita, Olathe, Overland Park and Topeka are represented as well.

With the help of a stipend from the Solutions Journalism Network’s Complicating the Narratives Fellowship, The Journal, the Kansas Leadership Center’s civic issues magazine, brought us together to be “thought partners” in informing the coverage of the topics of immigration and demographic change in the heartland. 

Geography wasn’t the only thing separating us. About half of us voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The other half voted for President Joe Biden. (One of us prefers not to say.) But our political differences rarely came up.

A third of us are immigrants. Another third have had close family members who were immigrants. And we all generally care about immigration because of how it affects our families, friends and communities.

Instead of being divided by immigration, we found ourselves bound together by common concerns. We found that despite our differences, we shared a desire for healthier dialogue on a very polarizing topic – discussions that we hope can lead to progress.

Over the course of four meetings facilitated by Journal and Kansas Leadership Center staff, we introduced ourselves to one another, formulated ideas for shaping civic dialogue on immigration and heard from experts on what makes the topic challenging to deal with.

More recently, we interviewed each other in pairs about our views and experiences related to immigration and listened to recordings of the conversations that other pairs had. Some of us left those engagements deeply moved by the stories our partners told. We’re including key portions of these conversations alongside this essay in hopes that you will get to know us better.

If you take nothing else from this article, we hope it will be about the importance of sharing our stories about immigration and demographic change, and hearing the stories of others.

You can’t understand much at all about people’s experiences with immigration and demographic change unless you talk with them. In conversations just 60 minutes long with one of our peers, we heard impactful tales of connection and passion. Personal experiences add depth, nuance and complexity to dialogue, and once we hear them, it’s hard not to leave with a stronger appreciation for the complexity of a difficult issue. 

Through our process, we also, perhaps unexpectedly, found ourselves sharing some common ground that we believe can be a foundation on which a healthier conversation about immigration and demographic change can be built.

What we’ve learned

Our journey hasn’t always been easy. Even this article became the subject of debate.

But the discoveries we made by talking to one another and considering ways our group can be impactful have been meaningful.

Here is a list of things we think we know about making the conversations about immigration and demographic change healthier in Kansas, the heartland and in the country as a whole.

1. Our current political stalemate over immigration hurts immigrants, our communities and our country.

We need to create a new reality for immigration in our country because the way things work currently is unnecessarily inhumane, arbitrary and time-consuming for immigrants, and it deprives communities of workers and residents. We don’t have the safe and secure border we deserve. We need our system to more fully acknowledge the reality that many people want to live in this country and that having them here adds value to our economies and communities. But it’s also clear that not everyone who wants to live here can, and there needs to be a clear, fair, realistic and consistent process to determine who does get to live here. We need rules that make sense and are equitably enforced and truly sustainable for both individuals who come here and the nation. 

2. Our representatives use the topic of immigration to inflame our passions. We need them to lead on solutions.

Immigration is skillfully and cynically exploited by both major political parties, especially since Democrats and Republicans are very far apart on what they value the most when it comes to policy. It’s a wedge issue that can be used to stoke our emotions and get us to vote for the party that will protect us from what we don’t want. 

Our group is united in calling on elected officials to prioritize making progress on this topic, not simply pushing their talking points or ducking from the fray. We know that this is risky, and that any change will upset many people. But the status quo is unsustainable.

We believe that most Americans to a large degree want the same things

  • Increased border security.
  • A way for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain here.
  • Consistent, equitable enforcement of immigration laws, such as deportations.
  • Acceptance of refugees trying to escape violence and war.
  • A way for immigrants here illegally to stay legally.
  • Easier ways to sponsor family members to immigrate to the U.S. 

The recent passage of the debt ceiling bill in Congress shows how a system that has been steered in a dysfunctional direction can still work when the pressure is on. For the good of the country, Republicans and Democrats must prioritize this issue and carve out the fair compromises necessary to move our country to a new era of immigration policy. If that pressure can’t materialize by itself, then more of us need to do the leadership work necessary to create it.

3. Let’s look toward the borders in our backyard first.

Yes, immigration is an international phenomenon and regulated by the federal government. We certainly face constraints in what we can do in our state and communities in relation to this issue. And we mostly agree that it’s probably not a great idea for state or local governments to get too involved in being immigration enforcers or turn a blind eye to immigration laws.

Kansas is home to more than 5,000 Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age and have grown up here and are now covered under an immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. These are people who live in our communities, who are Americans in all but the official sense. Our country shouldn’t continue to leave them in  legal limbo.

We can’t directly control the laws of our land except through the democratic process. But we can change our own attitudes and behaviors. We should celebrate the contributions these individuals make to our communities, lift them up and make sure they know we believe they belong here. They are our friends, colleagues and people we respect for their contributions, such as Ernestor De La Rosa, the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the city of Topeka.

Indeed, when it comes to immigration and demographic change, Kansas communities are leading in ways that the rest of our state and country can learn from. Garden City is deservedly celebrated for the ways in which city government, law enforcement, schools and churches have made proactive efforts to be inclusive of immigrant populations.

Collaborative efforts in Manhattan to resettle refugees from Afghanistan were the subject of a story in a recent edition of this magazine. In Emporia, a small group of English-speaking residents is working to make the community more cohesive and welcoming to Spanish-speakers and immigrants by learning the native tongue of newcomers.

The Dodge City School District has created a one-of-a-kind program to serve refugee teens who move into the district with little or no prior education, and is a leader in moving the needle on high school graduation rates for its students despite unique challenges.

And when a woman’s husband was murdered in a hate crime in Olathe a few years ago, the mayor (Michael Copeland, who died in 2020) publicly condemned the act, and elected officials in Kansas – Republicans, to be clear – rallied to help her secure legal permanent resident status and a chance at citizenship. Copeland also played a role in the start of the Olathe Latino Coalition, which helped the city prepare for a growing and changing population. It’s since evolved to become Bienvenidos KC.

No matter what happens at the physical border, our opportunities for leadership here know few bounds, and we should follow the lead of those who aren’t sitting around and waiting for someone else to do the work.

Illustration of people extending hands to immigrates.
Credit: Illustration by Anthony Russo

4. No wall will stop the changes unfolding in many of our communities. We have to adapt, learn from and lean on one another.

Those of us who were born before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 grew up in a different era of immigration for this country, one that bears little resemblance to the present and our legendary Ellis Island past. That law “ended immigration-admissions based on race and ethnicity and gave rise to the large-scale immigration, both legal and unauthorized.”

But the Kansas of today is actually somewhere between the great diversity of its early years, when 14% of the population was foreign born, and the Kansas of 1970, when only 1% of residents were foreign born, as Matthew Sanderson, the Randall C. Hill Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work and professor of geography and geospatial sciences at Kansas State University, has shared with audiences around the state in recent years. 

A state that became more homogenous throughout many decades of the 20th century has grown more diverse again. And that diversity is less tied to immigration. Even if immigration stopped today, our communities would grow more diverse in the years to come. Sometime in the next 30-some years, no single racial or ethnic classification will describe a majority of Kansas residents.

Such changes can be the source of fear, either consciously or subconsciously, particularly among some white residents who are used to a more homogenous state. But we have shown remarkable ability in the past to bring people of different backgrounds together to become loyal Kansans, and we are demonstrating that again readily in communities across the state.

5. Many of our communities need newcomers and the energy they bring. Without them, they’ll die.

The truth is that many parts of Kansas need immigrants. Most of our counties are losing people, and they need people to perform crucial jobs, pay taxes and infuse energy. The future of many of our small, rural communities may rest on being able to welcome immigrants and other newcomers, because without them, they risk their existence.

Our state as a whole isn’t growing either. If we can’t be a place where more people want to live, we risk losing clout relative to other states and diminish our ability to ensure that our shared values as Kansans shape the future of the country.

While Kansas grew in population between the 2010 and 2020 census, that was mainly because we had more births in the state than deaths. In terms of net migration, we lost nearly 26,000 people, which isn’t a big percentage. But it’s the equivalent of the entire city of Derby or Gardner emptying out over the course of a decade.

Kansas is an area of land that many of us love, but it is the people who make life here sustainable and enjoyable. We can’t close the doors to future Kansans without costing ourselves dearly in the long term.   

6. Even as we change, we should listen to and learn from skeptics and critics of immigration and its effects on the country.

Even though our politics vary widely, our group tends to view immigration as generally a good thing. We might disagree on the details, but none of us really think there should be no immigration. And while that unites us, it’s also a blind spot. Critics of immigration have a story they tell about the costs of letting more people into the country, both authorized and unauthorized.

They see costs being imposed on health and social services. Competition for jobs with the people who are already here. Strains on our classrooms, housing infrastructure and even natural resources. Others have expressed concern that immigration could fragment our nation’s shared culture and language. There can be a sense that we should be doing more for those already here before we let more people in.

Bringing in more workers from other countries could have consequences for jobholders. The current tight labor market has been a boon for hourly workers, who have gained financial security because of the high demand for their services.

Black Americans have done remarkably well in the post-pandemic economy, with their unemployment rates reaching record lows and their wages rising at their fastest pace ever. They now have an outsized presence in the labor force, and the gap between Black and white unemployment is the smallest it has ever been. But when recessions hit, Black workers tend to suffer first. There are good reasons to think carefully about decisions that could impact the labor market, and make sure that non-immigrants who might be affected have a seat at the table in those choices.    

There might be a tendency among those who share our vantage point to dismiss or delegitimize arguments that focus on the costs of immigration. We can be all be too quick to contend that racism or xenophobia, as real as they are, animates those who disagree with us.

But we know that adaptive change brings loss, so we must work harder to see and acknowledge the costs of immigration and engage in a good faith dialogue about them with those who point out the downsides. It will be hard to move toward a better future for this state and country unless a broad swath of Kansans believes their concerns have been considered and addressed.

We should remain mindful that, even as we reduce the harm it causes, we build an immigration system that rewards respect for the law, loyalty to this country and its traditions, and is fair to people waiting to become Americans as well as those already here. The rules should make sense, they should be followed, and they should matter.

This challenge won’t be solved by any one faction, but by enough liberals, moderates and conservatives finding a common purpose they can rally around. After all, Kansas is the state that elected Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, and Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, in the same election last year. Our views as a people are complex, and we must embrace complexity in our personal interactions.

However, we also need to ensure that our discussion remains based in facts. And those facts are usually complicated. For instance, U.S.-born children in immigrant-headed households can receive public benefits, but non-citizens themselves are generally ineligible for them.

We tend to use facts to serve our arguments and conveniently ignore the ones that contradict them. Most of us don’t have a great understanding of the immigration process. We should be wary of anyone painting a simple picture on the topic of immigration. 

7. Merging different cultures and nationalities is hard. But we’ve done it before. Yet, this time will likely look different.

History should give us a reason to be optimistic about the future. The motto of the U.S. is e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one,” and our state has embodied that ideal. We’ve shaped a cohesive state culture out of a wealth of many different groups and figured out how to handle far higher levels of immigration than we have now. We aren’t starting anything we haven’t handled before.

But history should also be a warning that we can’t build shared culture and values in the same manner that we have in the past. The costs of being a part of the one were steep for many. Black people wanting to live in Kansas faced racist acts of violence. Hispanic, Asian and immigrants of other nationalities have experienced discrimination. Native Americans were dispossessed of their land. The costs that people experienced to become recognized as part of one were not shared equally. Some of us gave up far more than others to be called Kansans and Americans.

We can’t remake the past, but we can shape the future. And in this future, we can build a shared culture strong enough to hold multiple overlapping identities. We can share an ethnic or racial identity with a set of values and beliefs that binds us together as Kansans and Americans. Ideals such as freedom, hard work, self-reliance, family, equality under the law and civic responsibility can unite us across cultures and backgrounds even as we celebrate the qualities that make us unique. 

But it means that some of us might have to let go of the idea that an American looks a certain way or talks a certain way. What matters is that they work to adhere to these values we all share.

8. We believe that America is exceptional. And we all have a role in building on that.   

We share a view that America, for whatever flaws it has, is still the greatest country in the world. This is the place that, the world over, people want to come to. We should be proud of that, but also see it as an obligation.  

We’ve inherited a house that has been tended well enough to sustain us, and we have the responsibility to maintain what’s great about it, attempt to address its defects and leave it in the best shape we can for the generations that will inhabit it next. But every house requires maintenance or even renovation over time to remain habitable. We can’t in good conscience reap the benefits of living in the house if we don’t put in the “sweat equity” to ensure it doesn’t get sullied and remains a good home for future residents.

Kansans and this country have the ability to tackle the challenges and opportunities of immigration and demographic change head-on. And we have the obligation. That’s what Americans do when they are at their very best. They go out and address the unsolvable, whether it’s creating a government directed by the people, ending the practice of slavery, defeating fascism and totalitarianism abroad, going to the moon or making civil rights the law of the land.  

Discussing our changing communities

Journal Talks logo

Now we’ve reached the point where we ask you to join us in our conversations. Over the next few months, The Journal will be hosting Journal Talks: Bringing Together Our Changing Communities, a series of community conversations about immigration and demographic change.

The dialogue will kick off Aug.17, with an in-person conversation at the Kansas Leadership Center. (Participants will also be able to join virtually.) In the weeks afterward, we plan to take the conversation to 10 to 15 communities around the state, with organizations like community leadership programs serving as conveners and facilitators.

We’re asking residents of these communities to not just talk, but take on an assignment, one that’s small but significant. We want you to gather in a group for 60 or 90 minutes and answer the following questions:

  • How are the demographics of your community changing and what does it mean for you?
  • How might immigration affect the future of your community?
  • What values do you think should bind us together as Americans?
  • What should your community be doing to be both welcoming, cohesive and connected?

We want you to come to a broad consensus on your answers, put some stakes in the ground and tell the rest of Kansas what you decided. Participating communities will send back a 300-word statement capturing your community’s answers and we’ll print them in The Journal. At the end of the process, we might have evidence of progress toward a collective purpose on these difficult topics. Or we might not.

But what matters the most is we’ll be talking with one another about how to make our communities better places to live.

Magazine cover featuring an illustration of several people trying to tie a large quarter—with the words "e pluribus unum" inscribed on it—back together

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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