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Immigrant workforce is lifeblood of industry in western Kansas

David Rebein is a personal injury attorney in Dodge City. He considers himself conservative. But when it comes to the issue of immigration, he is 180 degrees from today’s conservative stance. Rebein says western Kansas survives on immigrant labor.

“Without our energetic, youthful, immigrant workers, there would be no industry in western Kansas,” he says. “There is not a single industry out here that could survive without that workforce.”

Those workers, he says, come in two groups. The documented workers — those who have a green card, send their children to school and to college, advance quickly in the community and become leaders — are one group.

The second group is the undocumented workers, who have no green card. They also send their children to school and to college, but struggle to move up. Most of them want to participate fully in the community, but can’t.

Key Points

• Attorney says immigrant labor is essential in western Kansas.

• Problem of “illegal” workers is embedded in system, he says.

• Garden City mayor loves the city’s “melting pot” culture.

“As near as I can tell, both groups work hard, love their kids, want to please their employers and have a primary goal of getting ahead,” he says. “You really couldn’t pick a better fit of immigrant for western Kansas. These people have a strong work ethic, and are Christian, mostly Catholic, with a commitment to church and faith. They have intense family values and a culture of entrepreneurship.”

He says he just doesn’t understand how the issue of immigration became so politicized, or why it can’t be easier for workers to come here for jobs that employers need to fill.

He says cracking down on employers who unwittingly hire those with false documentation is not the answer.

“Even the big employers with human resources departments struggle,” he says. “Now step back and think how hard it is for small business, farms and small dairies to check all the paperwork. This notion of punishing employers isn’t going to do anything but hurt business.”

No ‘help wanted’

And this won’t solve the real problem, he says, which is that there’s a shortage of people in the native population who want the jobs offered.

“Our packing plants, feedlots and dairies could advertise for workers for years and not get applicants, not even with today’s unemployment rate. You just don’t find people who want to work out in heat or cold, work around animals or work as hard as you have to work in these jobs,” he says.

In nearby Garden City, Mayor John Doll says that he revels in the “melting pot” culture that made Garden City the first U.S. city to be “majority, minority” meaning that more than half its residents had heritage other than European.

“We have 17 different languages or dialects spoken here,” he says. “We have holiday celebrations of Filipino, Polynesian, Asian, Mexican and South American cultures. I think it is awesome. I realize that I am a person who loves culture, but really this is what America is, a blend of all kinds of cultures and people who have melded into one culture and one people. It’s amazing and wonderful.”

A teacher and coach by trade, Doll says the one thing he’d like from the federal government is an immigration office in western Kansas.

Paperwork a big hassle

“Our people have to go to Wichita or Kansas City to do paperwork,” he says. “I’ve been told it’s because some survey says that we don’t have sufficient numbers of immigrants to qualify for an office,” he says. “I think the survey was flawed. We need a western Kansas ‘Ellis Island.’

“We have a lot of people who just won’t miss work for any reason. And that’s why they don’t take three days off and go to Kansas City for interviews and paperwork,” Doll adds.

“Have there been problems? Yes,” he says. “We’ve had things to overcome. But has it made Garden City a better place to live and raise children? Absolutely.”

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ESSENTIAL WORKFORCE: Industries such as this western Kansas dairy depend on a largely immigrant workforce.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.