UMKC’s socially progressive Midwestern campus, far from any international border, may seem far removed from the controversial illegal immigration debate.
Last year, it was demoted to the second degree of separation, after Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach departed from his professorship at the School of Law.
After teaching for more than a decade at UMKC, Kobach left shortly after his victory in the Nov. 2010 Kansas Secretary of State election.
An of counsel attorney for the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), Kobach is considered a driving force behind highly controversial measures that crack down on undocumented immigrants. They include Arizona’s S.B. 1070, Alabama’s H.B. 56, proposed bills in Kansas and Missouri, and numerous others.
S.B. 1070, H.B. 56 and Missouri’s proposed S.B. 590 allow local law enforcement to check the legal status of suspected undocumented immigrants, a role otherwise confined to the federal government.
More recently, Kobach has taken on the role of Mitt Romney’s immigration policy adviser.
His strategy of “voluntary self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants has elicited praise from some, and invoked horror from advocates for immigrant rights.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a prominent civil rights nonprofit, describes Kobach as a “leading Nativist (anti-immigration) figure” and has designated IRLI’s parent organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), as a hate group.
Kobach dismissed SPLC as a “left-wing hack organization,” in an interview with U-News last January, and has repeatedly denied allegations of racism.
In the meantime, UMKC has distanced itself from the Kobach controversy.
This year, it introduced the Latino(a)/Chicano(a) Studies Program, headed by Dr. Miguel Carranza.
The program is part of UMKC’s strategic plan to increase undergraduate enrollment, retention and diversity.
Carranza said he was not aware of Kobach’s affiliation with the school when he joined the Arts & Sciences Sociology Department as a full professor last fall, and that he might have reconsidered the job if Kobach were still on faculty. He said that otherwise the school has been welcoming.
“One of the things that was important for me was that the university had a commitment to more than a shell of a program,” Carranza said.
When he met with the Chancellor’s Hispanic Advisory Board, he added, members were committed to the program’s success.
Carranza said his experiences growing up have enabled him to relate to first- generation college students from working class and immigrant families.
His grew up working alongside his six siblings in fields planted by his father, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1927.
The U.S. Latino population has grown steadily since the 1800s, when a series of wars and treaties ceded the Southwestern U.S. from Mexico.
Cities and towns in Great Plains states like Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska saw the emergence of small immigrant communities.
Including personal stories in the immigration debate acknowledges the humanity of what some only see as a political issue.
As a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the ’70s, Carranza said was inspired by Dr. Julian Samora, the first Mexican-American to receive a Ph.D. in sociology.
“It seemed like he was talking to my identity,” Carranza said. “It was a critical learning period.
The ’70s witnessed the rise of the United Farm Workers, founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and the Chicano Moratorium, a group of anti-war Latino demonstrators and others sympathetic with their cause.
African-Americans and Latinos were overrepresented among casualties in Vietnam, and more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The two eras are very similar,” Carranza said. “Many people who shouldn’t have been drafted weren’t because of the privileges they had. Those who had the least power to resist the draft were the most likely to have their numbers pulled.”
Latino immigrants, regardless of documentation, often work dangerous, labor-intensive jobs in the construction and agricultural industries for little pay.
Carranza said that many citizens refuse to work at jobs in meat packing plants, which are large employment centers in rural towns in such states as Nebraska and Kansas.
Before he left the University of Nebraska- Lincoln (UNL) for UMKC, he toured a meat packing plant in Schuyler, Neb.
Meat carcasses were suspended by metal hooks as they awaited workers to separate them by parts.
“They gave us ear plugs, helmets and hair mats,” he said. “You kind of cringed from everything that was happening and the smell of grease and oil.”
Meat packing jobs start out at roughly $10 an hour, equivalent to roughly twice Mexico’s daily minimum wage.
“You visit these plants and realize that you have to be very desperate to do that work and bring your family there,” Carranza said. “People forget that immigrants come at a great risk.”
A worker was killed after accidentally impaling his chest at the plant. Around the same time, a Chicano community leader suffered a heart attack. At the funeral, Carranza noticed the kids from the soccer team he coached wore their uniforms to the funeral. It was a bonding moment in a rural town not always welcoming to outsiders.
“Some of the community would complain about the influx of Latino immigrants,” Carranza said. “They would say, ‘They’re all illegal,’ and some of them were.”
Carranza said incidents of undocumented immigrants voting and applying for welfare benefits are exaggerated.
“Any time you make yourself visible, it creates a chance of being apprehended,” he said.
While the Supreme Court requires public schools to educate students irrespective of immigration status, a recent push has been made to require students to disclose their legal status.
Such action is required by H.B. 56 in Alabama and Missouri’s proposed S.B. 590.
Carranza described the legislation as “meanspirited.”
“Can you think of how hard it will be to be a good student,” Carranza said. “Who’s to say something as simple as a field trip form could wind up in the hands of immigration?”
Carranza said fear of illegal immigration has led to increased hostility, which often incites reactions of hate and violence.
Because illegal immigrants are a powerless group, they are an easy scapegoat.
“Some people don’t think they’re doing anything wrong because they see illegal immigrants as trouble makers,” he said. “If you put fear in the equation, it’s easy for people to be hateful.”