Kansas Leadership Center strives for civility in immigration debate


Kyle Landolfi

Community members participate in a small-group discussion on immigration during the Journal Talk event held at the Kansas Leadership Center on Thursday, Feb. 20.

Kansans from across the state convened at the Kansas Leadership Center Thursday night for the first of the Center’s 2020 Journal Talks, where community members work to address polarizing topics. This year, the issue on the docket is immigration.

The nonprofit KLC aims to foster connections between Kansans who are incorporating situation diagnosis, self-management, skillful intervention, and leadership to further civil discourse. 

The Journal, the KLC’s quarterly publication, will publish a double issue on immigration this year. Topics from the last two years include gun control and the relationship between people of color and law enforcement.

Thursday’s Journal Talk was the first opportunity to get the conversation underway on an issue that’s sure to be contentious in a presidential election year.

“We’re not just here to talk about immigration. We’re here to talk about talking about immigration,” KLC founding President and CEO Ed O’Malley told participants.

Brandon Kliewer, an assistant professor of civic leadership at Kansas State University, was a small-group discussion facilitator Thursday.

“Talking about difficult issues requires practice, and if we don’t hone those skills to disagree in productive ways, then we’re going to lose that capacity” Kliewer said. “I think that’s that as we think about the success of Kansas in the 21st century, we need to learn how to engage each other in new ways, but also understand disagreement, but how do we design forms of engagement so we can disagree in productive ways?”

 Before conversations began, Chris Green, managing editor of The Journal, administered a Pew Research quiz to test participants’ knowledge of immigration in Kansas and in the world.

In Kansas, 7% of residents are foreign born, compared to 14% nationwide. More than 11.6 million U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico, making it the top birth country for immigrants in the country, but in recent years, more immigrants are coming from Asia than any other continent.

Although there is a distinct partisan gap, Americans are overall trending towards more favorable views on immigrants, according to Pew. This fact seemed to surprise many people.

“I thought it was negative because of what I hear — not because of what I feel,” one participant later commented.

O’Malley then directed participants to assigned groups led by KLC facilitators, including Kliewer. He asked why immigration is currently a “hot” topic. 

Participants acknowledged that loaded political rhetoric contributes greatly to the divisiveness of the topic. One participant said they would like to hear more about the positives of immigration, because “that voice doesn’t get heard a lot.” Another participant said the negative connotations associated with illegal immigration cloud people’s overall perceptions of immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

For the next exercise, groups were asked to represent factions with different viewpoints on immigration. Kliewer’s group was instructed to act as the hardline anti-immigration faction, analyzing what factors contribute to their weariness of immigrants.

“It’s a fear of something different — invasion of company. It’s a fear of losing my job. It’s a down deep fear,” one participant said.

Group members agreed that a fear of change and a “strong sense of their own” motivate people within this hardline faction. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the group representing the “no borders” faction identified human rights and a strong sense of justice as the driving force behind the viewpoint. They concluded that authentic interactions with immigrants can drive people towards more acceptance.

After the Journal Talk, Carynne Jarrel, an AmeriCorps VISTA program coordinator, said she expected the discussion to be more heated.

“I think I learned that other people feel similarly as I do, because I have experience working with immigrants in my previous jobs — in different ways,” Jarrel said. “I have first-hand experience with stories. That was something that was brought up with relationship-building. That usually helps change people’s opinions on both sides. I think I was surprised to hear that other people knew that.”

The immigration issue is not going to be solved overnight, but by facilitating discussion, the KLC hopes to promote civility and advance discourse on the topic. Thursday was just a start.