The Journal, the Kansas Leadership Center’s civic issues magazine, recruited 10 Kansans from diverse backgrounds to inform its coverage of immigration and demographic change. They met for six hours over the course of four meetings that began this past December.

As part of their experience, the partners were paired up to interview each other about the topic of immigration. They were asked to use a skill called looping, which involves reflecting back on what is heard in conversation to test our comprehension and go deeper. They were tasked with asking a set of questions specifically designed to make the conversation more complex and nuanced.

Here are the questions they asked:

  • Why is the topic of immigration important to you?
  • Tell us about how your experiences have shaped your views on this topic.
  • What do you think is dividing us on this issue? Are there areas where you feel misunderstood?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • How would life be better for you if this issue was resolved?

I learned both the looping technique and interview questions over the past year through a Complicating the Narratives Fellowship with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Journal thought partners

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be sharing comments from each of the 10 partners. We’ll be updating this post each day, so please bookmark it and come back to see new comments as they are added.

And if you want to be a part of the conversation yourself, please join us for The Journal’s kickoff discussion from 5:30-7 on Aug. 17. at the Kansas Leadership Center.

Inas Younis

Illustration of Inas Younis
Credit: Anthony Russo

Inas Younis lives is Overland Park and is a writer and immigrant born in Iraq. In a conversation with Reynaldo Mesa, Garden City, she answered the following questions: 

Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

The American experiment is all about the idea that people with wildly varying demographics, points of views, religions, can coexist peacefully, in a shared space, and become a community. 

We’re proving something to the world. We’re proving the importance of a system bringing people together in a peaceful way. You don’t see that anywhere else on the planet. And in part, we don’t see that because the system is rigged to pit people against each other. Right? There’s no objectivity in any other system on this Earth, not in the way that the United States was able to build. The ideas of individual rights and objective law are really kind of new — new concepts, historically speaking, that we take for granted. But they are the reason that we, a diverse group of people, can live together in peace. Immigration is so much more than just who we let in, who we don’t let in. It’s a philosophical triumph of the American story.

What do you think is dividing us on this issue? Are there areas where you feel misunderstood?

There are a lot of areas I feel misunderstood. I think more because of my religious association than my ethnic because I can pass as Italian. I can pass for many different ethnicities other than a Middle Eastern woman. But when people know that I am a Muslim, then all of a sudden their first go-to misconception is: OK, then I’m oppressed in some way. That I’m being abused. There are just all the horror stories you hear about in the media. It just isn’t the case for the majority of us. Just kind of disabusing people of those misconceptions can get a little exhausting sometimes, feeling like I have to prove myself.

For many, many years, there was a narrative that would circulate in media and right-wing groups that the Muslims that are assimilated and that look just like you are the ones you really need to worry about. Not the ones whose identity is very visible and clear. Because they’re stealthily trying to integrate into the culture so they can change it from within. How do you combat that kind of nonsense? That’s been an uphill battle.

Josey Hammer

Illustration of Josey Hammer
Credit: Anthony Russo

Josey Hammer lives in Courtland, where she works as a photographer, videographer and marketer. In a conversation with Dave Sotelo, Hutchinson, she answered the following questions:

Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

Being in a rural community in north central Kansas, it doesn’t affect me. I don’t want that to sound wrong; it does affect me. But it does not come across in a daily situation for me. And I think that’s actually maybe what bothers me a little bit about it. Because it’s not in-your-face necessarily up here in a lot of our rural communities. It’s not something that people pay as much attention to as I wish that they would.

I also feel like it’s such a hot topic, and it’s such a deep topic, that I don’t feel like it’s something people are ever going to agree on. But I feel like the only way to get people to even come to that middle place to understand each other is that everybody gets to hear the same goods and the bads of all of it. And I think that that has to come from personal experiences, because I feel like that’s the only thing that people are actually going to believe at this point.

I lived in Mexico for a summer in a very rural community down there for three months. It was amazing. The people were amazing. They were wonderful people, and they work hard. If those are the type of people that are trying to come here, I want them to be able to come here. I want them to be able to find jobs and be able to work and create a new life, if that’s what they would like. 

I do feel like rural Kansas, even in this topic, is misunderstood in some ways. I feel like they do care. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that every day, if you’re a farmer, the most important thing to you is going to be, like, right now it’s planting season. So, right now, the most important thing for a farmer up here is: How’s the weather? Can I plant today? Does my equipment work? That’s the primary issue for them on a daily basis.

What’s the question nobody’s asking?

What if some of the things that people say as far as the downside to letting a lot of immigrants in, what if some of those things are true? That’s not what anybody wants to talk about. We want it to be positive, and we want good things to happen. I want people to be able to come, but what if some of those things that people are saying, not all of them necessarily even, but what if just some of them are true?

Dave Sotelo

Dave Sotelo lives in Hutchinson, where he works as a city official. As a child, he fled Mexico because of death threats against his family. He shared his story with Josey Hammer, Courtland. 

Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

Beyond just my personal experience and the experience of my family, I get a call about six times a year from a teacher or a pastor, or just a caring friend, who wants to inquire about their friend’s immigration status. I get a call constantly about, “How do we help this person?” Usually it is framed as: “I know straight-A student heavily involved in our school or heavily involved in our church. Just an ideal citizen that we need to keep helping. They are undocumented. Is there anything we can do?” I usually will connect them to lawyers. But I know what the answer is, most of the time. I have to say, well, they can either get married or just hope for a miracle. 

I always say, I didn’t get up one day and think, When I was 13 years old, let’s go to J.C. Penney or let’s go shopping in an American mall. I really want to eat a hamburger at Burger King in Hutchinson, Kansas. That was never something that crossed my mind. I loved where I lived. I loved  my community, my school, my friends, my family.

I grew up with my grandmother in Mexico. My parents moved to the States when I was a young kid. My grandmother also raised two other kids: My cousin, whose mother died when the youngest one was born. And then a third cousin, whose father died when she was young. She was raised by her mother, but my grandmother helped a lot. My aunt was a police officer, and moved up through the ranks and became a captain.

Eventually, in 2009, the government becomes more aggressive in how they go after drug cartels in the country. And it just creates a disruption of how communities work. Safe, smaller communities like mine now are seeing more drug trafficking activity. It creates a lot of violence. That starts happening in our community and my aunt being a police officer, and higher up in the department, starts to try to address that. But a local, small police department is not going to address a multinational organized-crime organization. She started getting death threats to stop what she’s doing.

The death threats get so bad and so complicated that now it implicates my family. All of us, not just my aunt. One day, I am walking home from school and the guy that’s going after our family is near our house with weapons talking about going after us. By that point, my aunt had already moved away from town because it got so dangerous. But that wasn’t enough. We knew that we were a target too at that point. 

We decided that the best option for us is to come live with our family here in the States. So then we start trying to figure out, how do we get there? What does that look like? None of us can come here legally, because we’re so young. Our parents are here undocumented, the only one that can come here with legal documents is my grandmother, who’s a business owner. So we decided to cross the border illegally. 

In December of 2009, I crossed the border for the first time, getting detained and sent back. Then, the second time I’m crossing by myself, and I get caught using the ID of another person.I don’t get sent back. I get sent to an unaccompanied-minor shelter. I spent about a month and a half there. Spent my first Christmas there. For a while, I didn’t have any connection to my family. My grandmother eventually found me.

Just thinking about the first call I had with my grandmother when she finds where I am, and the sense of safety and hope that I got at that moment. It was such a hard time for me as a kid. My life was perfect up until that point, and then everything changes, right? I’m in survival mode. 

We eventually learned that I can’t go back to Mexico obviously because my life is in some danger. The U.S. government doesn’t want that. I cannot live with my parents because they’re undocumented here. So, my aunt and uncle here in Hutchinson asked for legal guardianship of me. So I can live with them. It was, like, you’d think, “Oh, well, great; I left the shelter. Now you have stability.” But new family, new school, new town, I didn’t speak English. That process was just as difficult and as long. Eventually, I get my green card.

Clemente Bobadilla-Reyes

Clemente Bobadilla-Reyes
Credit: Anthony Russo

Clemente Bobadilla-Reyes lives in Wichita. In a conversation with Mark Lowry, a small business owner in Stockton, he shares about his experiences with the immigration system and how they have influenced his views.


Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

Being an immigrant myself, immigration is very important to me. Because I lived through it. I watched my parents live through it. I’ve watched other family members go through it. And it’s important to me, because it’s a lot different being on both sides of it.

I was lucky enough that when I was growing up, I didn’t know I was an immigrant. I didn’t know I was illegal until I was much older and I kind of understood the process. But I think nowadays, it’s a lot more polarized. You get villainized a little bit more when you’re an immigrant.

When in my case, I was brought to this country against my own will. I didn’t tell my parents, “Hey, bring me into the U.S. illegally.” I consider myself as proud of being an American as I am Mexican. Because I would probably not have the opportunities I have now if I’d still been in Mexico. That’s why immigration is very important to me. Because without it, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. I’m sharing what’s essentially my life story. 

I went through the process (of becoming a citizen) myself. Being so young, I don’t remember much about it. One memory I do have that kind of tickles me: I remember when my Social Security card arrived in the mail. I just remember being so excited because my name had a number now, like I existed. That’s kind of the way I saw it. That’s the only memory I really have of the whole process, other than just going to the lawyer’s office, having my mom fill out a whole bunch of different paperwork.

Personally, now my mother-in-law’s in the middle of trying to get her visa. She’s been here – she was here, she’s in Mexico – going on almost 30 years. Her life she went back to is completely different. The town she grew up in 30 years ago is different. Friends and family she knew from back then aren’t there anymore. Just the uncertainty of not knowing when she’ll be back is what’s really affected us, especially my wife now. Because we’ve heard it’s either six months or nine months. We heard it could be up to two years. We heard it could be up to 10 years. But we don’t know, and that’s what we’re going through now. Paying thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees, just at the end of the day, to be at the mercy of whoever’s assigned her case.

What do you think is dividing us on this issue? Are there areas where you feel misunderstood?

Something that’s kind of my biggest struggle right now is trying to get people to not be so far on either side. I don’t believe in amnesty either. I feel like you should go through the process if you want to be here. I don’t think you should be automatically given something. It could just be the fact that I wasn’t given anything. I don’t believe in handouts. I try to remain very neutral in the middle, but for some reason nowadays, it’s hard to be in the middle, because you are told you have to be on one side or the other. 

Mark Lowry

Mark Lowry

Mark Lowry lives in Stockton and owns a small business. He isn’t an immigrant. But in a conversation with Clemente Bobadilla-Reyes of Wichita, he shares how family experiences have given him a window into the barriers that newcomers to this country can face.


Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

I’m not an immigrant but I do have an adopted daughter. My wife and I adopted a young lady that is an American citizen. Her mother came to California when she was expecting and had her daughter in California. Then after she was born and a United States citizen, they went back to Mexico. She lived most of her youthful life in Mexico.

Due to some family situations there and some conditions, she ended up with some family members from Kansas and ended up in the foster care system. So we adopted a teenager that is an American citizen but really struggled with a lot of the same challenges that probably most immigrants have if they come to the United States. 

When we adopted her, she didn’t really have very much English and was really kind of behind in some education things. It was a fantastic experience. It was hard. A lot of difficult years helping a young person from a difficult situation. She has now become a successful young adult …

She probably faced a lot of the challenges that someone who was a new immigrant would face. Some of the English challenges and some of the educational challenges, and maybe even some of the challenges that people just didn’t accept her very well because of who she was and where she came from. 

For someone with my background, I’m just a white male. I’ve never experienced discrimination on those levels and what that feels like. That’s kind of heartbreaking to me when people don’t understand. Because she couldn’t speak English very well, they didn’t give her much of a chance or treated her differently because of who she was.

It’s important to give others a chance. I think this country is built on diversity. That’s what makes us great is the idea that we have different people from different places all coming together and sharing ideas and sharing resources and how we can live together in peace.

On the professional side, I live in a very rural area of northwest Kansas. One of the things I think is really challenging right now is a lack of workforce. Immigration could be a real key if we could somehow find a path to citizenship for immigrants coming to the United States. Right now, I could go down our Main Street and almost every business is looking for help. Our unemployment (rate) is very low. Every business would take in new employees and hire new employees if we had the opportunity to have more people in our community. More open immigration, even if it had some rules, would benefit our rural communities.

Jim Terrones

Jim Terrones

Jim Terrones lives in Olathe and is a retired corrections administrator. In a conversation with Marty Hillard of Topeka, he spoke about his family’s immigration history and his hopes for the future.


Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

I was brought up in Newton, Kansas. It’s a railroad community north of Wichita. My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Back then, they did their paperwork, and they came because they saw the employment opportunity in America. My grandparents lived in housing next to the railroad, because that’s all they could afford. That’s what the railroad community provided for them until they were able to save enough income to get a home. And both my parents were born in the United States.

I was raised hearing the trains going by … all hours of the day. And I remember seeing … my uncles and my dad and friends, they would just walk because everybody lived close to the railroad, and some of the coldest days. And on some of the hottest days, they would walk home. Somewhere along the line, I told myself, I am not going to work for the railroad. 

How would life be better for you if this issue was resolved?

My great grandmother, my great grandparents didn’t see (immigration reform). My parents didn’t see it. I would like my brothers and sisters to see it. A lot of my uncles and aunts are now gone. It would be nice if my granddaughter, my nieces and nephews would see some sort of immigration reform, because it’s going to be better for the friends and the colleagues that I know. They’re Dreamers, they’re business owners, they’re paying their taxes, they’re raising their families. They just want to be part of the American dream, if you will. I just think that it would be better. Because when we work together, good things can happen in this country.

Marty Hillard

Marty Hillard

Marty Hillard lives in Topeka. In a conversation with Jim Terrones of Olathe, he spoke about how we might be less divided if we listened more to the people experiencing the immigration system.


Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

I would say that maybe the first person that I think about when it comes to immigration is my friend Luis. His wife is a colleague of mine, and the conversation, it’s so interesting, because I’ve had conversations with him about being undocumented, but not ones that are specific to his own memories. What I do know about him is that he’s so passionate, and that … he’s such an advocate, and he’s worked with so many different nonprofits in a variety of capacities to continue to advocate for undocumented Latinos and Hispanics in our communities here in northeast Kansas, in the Kansas City area.

So just being able to see through his lens, but also to see him come alongside me as it relates to just racial and social justice overall, and some of the ongoing efforts that we’ve had here and in Shawnee County with regard to police violence and police reform. Our stories and our struggles are … tied directly with one another, and that they’re not just parallel, but they’re weaving in and out of each other every single day …

What do you think is dividing us on this issue?

It’s just, there’s just so much rich perspective that you can get hearing from people who directly are affected by these issues. When we go to the border, we don’t have enough conversations with the people that are directly affected. We might talk to policymakers in those areas, and we might talk to service people in those areas. But you know, how often do we talk to the people who are living this every day? Or the people who are in nonprofits offering direct aid and direct services to immigrants who are flowing across the border? I think that’s a lot … of where the division lies is that we were not talking to the right people often enough.

Alba Gutierrez-Ortiz

Alba Gutierrez-Ortiz

Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

It’s important to me because I have seen it in both my family and my friends. It’s part of American life, at least where I’m at. I’m in a community that’s about over 50% Latino. So it affects our daily lives here a lot in the sense that we have a need for employment. Sometimes the employers aren’t going about hiring people in the most legal ways. We just had a company that got busted for hiring minors.

If we’re not having this discussion now about making things easier or better, there’s going to be a whole lot of illegal things happening, or other repercussions that aren’t great. My dad had to sleep in a barn, work in construction and just did jobs as a kid, when you need to be in school and learning. My mom, she was pregnant with my oldest sister when she went across the river. Just totally unsafe conditions. I feel like there’s blood on everybody’s hands. And there’s more stories that are worse than my family’s. The people that don’t make it. The families that get separated. The children that no longer have their parents.

My mom just became a citizen in September. I got to see her fail at the exam once. That was back in May (of last year) that she failed it. There had been previous attempts, and I was too young to understand what happened, why she didn’t get it. She did the process, but she didn’t get it. I was a sixth grader, and I couldn’t help my mom.

Failing was very discouraging for her. The family, we all encouraged her to keep going. Because at this point, she’s a legal resident through my dad, before she became a citizen. She just was starting to feel that hopelessness of, “Well, what’s the point?” “Well, Mom, there’s the big point of of you being able to make your voice heard. These elections are where policy change happens.” We just went back and studied all the questions. There was a point in time that she could just fire off all the answers rapidly. Now that she’s 60, she feels like she’s a little slower. But she was able to get it that … time around.

She is officially a citizen. And this past election year, I was able to take her to vote for the first time. So that was pretty exciting.

Reynaldo Mesa

Reynaldo Mesa

Reynaldo Mesa lives in Garden City, where he formerly served as mayor and a state representative. In a conversation with Inas Younis, he he discusses his frustrations with how the issue is being handled.


Tell us how your experiences have shaped your views on this topic?

Because of my background of being Hispanic, and my father being born in Mexico, who came to Garden City back in 1948. My mother was from Copeland, Kansas, but she too is Mexican. There’s eight of us in our family.

When I was younger, you really didn’t think much about it. I didn’t see or have much of an issue. I grew up in the middle to late ‘70s, going to school. We just didn’t have the things going on, at least here in Garden City, that you see today. Very divided. Lots of hatred going on.

I’ll be honest with you. I think the politicians feed into that. Being an elected official, I did serve a couple of years in the Statehouse; there were times I had to fight back. The attempt to get our hands involved in immigration, when it’s actually a federal issue. However, the states are important in that conversation and should be involved to some extent.

On a personal level, I’ve become more critical of the way things are being handled. … Like we’re not holding people accountable like we could. I think Mexico should be held accountable to help us solve this problem. I feel for the women and children and the men being exploited and harmed in sex trafficking. With the latest comments from the president from Mexico, he acts like there’s not a problem. They are a problem. My view has been a little more critical about how the U.S. is handling the problem. I believe we can fix it, and we choose not to.  

I believe (immigration) should be important to all of us, because quite frankly, without immigration, I don’t think the U.S. could function, to be honest with you. We make up the people who come here, this is who we are. This is what the United States is all about. That’s why people want to come here, for the freedom and the ability to exercise their freedoms. We live in the greatest country in the world. So, it is important to me and I want to try to keep it that way, as much as possible, for others to enjoy the freedoms that we do have. Because a lot of other countries, man, you just don’t have this form of government, this republic. We have the ability to vote for who we want in office. So immigration is part of that. It’s part of the United States. The immigrants helped build this nation.

Peggy Ruebke

Peggy Ruebke

Peggy Ruebke lives in Nickerson where she serves as mayor. In a conversation with Alba Gutierrez-Ortiz of Dodge City, she spoke about how difficult it can be to get people to be fully honest about their views on immigration, and to take a stand on those views.


What do you think is dividing us on this issue?

I asked a ton of people what their thoughts were on immigration. I’m one of those people, I like to listen to people. Find out their feelings or thoughts. But the one thing I have learned, especially in the last three years of being a mayor – people will tell you things to your face, but you turn around and you walk out of a room, and they’ll say something else. 

For example, I’d asked an older gentleman at our local cafe what he thought about immigration. He goes, “Oh, we need to bring these people in. We need to get them help. We need to do these things.”

As soon as I left the room (I had another friend sitting at the table at the time), he was like, “We better just close those borders. We can’t let them be here.” I don’t know if it’s fear. I don’t know what caused him to basically say what I think he wanted me to know or what he thought I should know. I don’t know what the true answer is to it. I guess my view is we need to have better education. Most of these people want to become U.S. citizens. I think that would help. I’ve been told, “They don’t want to pay taxes.” Asking these questions in our small town has really opened my eyes to how people really talk. They say one thing, and then when it comes to doing it, it’s a little different.

I hear so many people say, “Well, we have to demand the people empower the elected officials to say that we want this immigration to just happen.” I will be honest with you. I’m up for reelection. And of course, I speak my mind. So it doesn’t really matter. All my citizens know this about me. But watching other politicians, they really struggle. Behind closed doors, they will say, “Well, I’m really for this, but if I vote that way, then I won’t get reelected.” Because people will tell you, “Oh, you need to have an immigration policy.” But then they’ll turn around and say, “I won’t reelect you if they do it.” And I think that’s wrong. I think that education is going to be our key factor but I don’t know what that education piece looks like.


Sign up for The Journal’s kickoff event on Aug. 17 and learn more about how you can join Ruebke in making the conversation about immigration and demographic change in Kansas and beyond healthier.

Read more in the Summer 2023 edition of The Journal, which will be published Aug. 10.

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