Over the past few weeks, we have watched as the Trump administration’s nativist, anti-immigrant ideology has brought our government to a grinding halt. The partial federal shutdown has directly impacted the well-being of more than 800,000 federal workers, their families and the American people who rely on government services.
But the good news in the shadow of this shutdown is that the midterm elections showed us that these obstructive ideologies are being rejected by voters. For years, Kansans have had to contend with anti-immigrant hardliner Kris Kobach, whose views and policies are an affront to our values of family, faith and community. Now we are finally moving forward.
On Nov. 6, Rep. Kevin Yoder and gubernatorial candidate Kobach — both Republicans — lost their elections. That’s notable because President Donald Trump won Kansas in 2016 with 56 percent of the vote.
So what accounts for this change? For one, it’s clear that Yoder, who lost to Democrat Sharice Davids by more than 9 percentage points, failed to account for changing demographics. Since 2016, Kansas’ 3rd District saw an increase of 5,000 Hispanic and Asian-American voters, but lost 7,500 white voters, according to an analysis by New American Economy. This is an acceleration of a longtime trend. If we look back 20 years, the central Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood of my Grandview Park Presbyterian Church was only 3 to 5 percent Latino. Around 1996, the neighborhood began to change as more immigrants arrived to build families, homes and businesses.
Across the Kansas City region, the immigrant population has quadrupled since 1990. According to a 2016 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, Kansas is home today to more than 204,000 immigrants. Many of these residents live in mixed-status families, where one or more household members is undocumented. A 2017 study by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the Center for American Progress found that nationwide, approximately 16.7 million people had at least one undocumented family member in the household.
It’s no surprise that in the midterms, immigration was a central issue for many people here. After the 2016 elections, parents in our community confided in me that classmates were taunting their kids, telling them to go back to Mexico. Even adults here perfectly legally felt afraid. This was largely driven by anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from Trump and Kobach, then secretary of state. On the campaign trail, Kobach said his top priority was stopping illegal immigration. He stumped alongside Trump and pushed an agenda that would ban landlords from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, announcing, “It’s time to put Kansans first, not illegal aliens.” This came on top of his 14-year attempt to eliminate in-state tuition for immigrant students.
Yoder took a more moderate approach on immigration while in office, but on the campaign trail, he ran ads implying that crime would flourish unchecked if his opponent Davids were elected. “Too radical,” the ads said. “Sharice Davids can’t keep us safe.” Yoder failed to separate himself from anti-immigration hardliners like one Republican Super PAC whose ad aimed to elect Yoder by juxtaposing images of a white, blond-haired Kansas family with those of gun-wielding “criminal illegal aliens.”
Davids, meanwhile, countered with ads about bipartisan immigration reform, strong borders and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Our community spoke, and Davids won.
This same narrative played out on a national scale. About half of the 42 Republicans who lost to Democrats ran fearmongering anti-immigrant ads, according to New American Economy. Many others, like Yoder, did little on the campaign trail to counter his party’s overwhelmingly negative immigration rhetoric. Over all, Republicans ran five times as many anti-immigrant attack ads during this election cycle as they did four years ago. In the House, that approach failed.
Americans increasingly identify immigrants and refugees not as threats, but as our neighbors. From local business owners to fellow church congregants, we know how much our lives are intertwined, and how much we lose when we push people away.
Immigrants have been key to revitalizing our communities. In the early 1990s, the population forecast for the Kansas City region projected an overall decline by the year 2000. It was predicted that our church neighborhood would become a ghost town. Instead, immigrant families moved in and opened businesses on Central Avenue. It’s now full of strong families and vibrant businesses. It’s been an amazing rebirth of a neighborhood and business district.
Data from New American Economy shows that immigrants comprise just 9.8 percent of the population in Kansas’ 3rd District, yet pay $643.4 million in state and local taxes. Our district alone has over 2,000 immigrant entrepreneurs. That’s a win for everyone.
Rick Behrens is senior pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan.