Wichita Police Chief Joe Sullivan and Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter say Wichita’s immigrant community should not fear HB 2350, an anti-smuggling bill that takes effect July 1.
Since its passage, the bill has come under fire from state politicians and immigration advocates for its vague language. Many people were concerned the law could be exploited by law enforcement to arrest good Samaritans, undocumented people or members of a mixed-status household.
Sullivan, Easter, Wichita Councilwoman Maggie Ballard, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Wichita branch, Yeni Silva-Renteria, appeared together at a news conference on June 13 to address “rumors and misinformation” about the new law.
“We want to assure that the community has a clear understanding of the bill’s provisions and how they will be implemented in our community moving forward,” said Chief Sullivan. “The Wichita Police Department will only intervene when elements of the crime of human smuggling are present or when a citizen reports a crime involving human smuggling.”
HB 2350 defines human smuggling as the act of “intentionally transporting, harboring or concealing an individual into or within Kansas, when the person knows or should have known that the individual is entering into or remaining in the United States illegally.”
Sullivan highlighted an internal policy explicitly stating that Wichita police officers will not initiate any action based solely on an individual’s immigration status. According to this policy, officers will not ask someone for specific documents for the “sole purpose of determining one’s immigration status.”
“The police department aims to ensure that its actions are never solely driven by immigration status, but to ensure that all of our actions are centered on addressing criminal activity and maintaining public safety for all,” he said.
Easter spoke after Sullivan, saying that the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office does not “get involved in immigration issues.”
“That is not something that we’re tasked to do or even able to do as law enforcement in the state of Kansas,” he said.
Under HB 2350’s definition of human smuggling, someone who “benefits financially or receives anything of value” could be prosecuted. Some advocates worried that wording could leave room for law enforcement to interpret “value” beyond financial currency, such as providing housing for someone undocumented. Sullivan and Easter said that won’t happen.
Sullivan said that Wichita police will focus arrests on smugglers.
“If someone is benefiting financially from the exploitation of another — in other words, transporting undocumented (people) for the purposes of prostitution or forced labor — we would enforce the law against the person doing the exploitation,” he said.
“Simply being given gas money for transporting someone to work, giving somebody dinner or a place to stay the night… absolutely, positively not (eligible for arrest). There is no reason that this law will be utilized in that way in the city of Wichita. I can guarantee that.”
Sullivan also said his agency will not pull cars over to question the driver or passengers about documentation.
According to Easter, both the sheriff and police chief have been in communication with Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett regarding HB 2350. Easter said to be charged and prosecuted under the law, a person must meet three criteria:
“A violation of this law is an individual bringing (people) here, housing them and forcing the undocumented person to do something that (the smuggler) will gain from,” Easter said.
When asked if human smuggling and trafficking was prevalent in Wichita, Sullivan gave a resounding yes, adding that most major metropolitan cities struggle with the issue.
“We know undocumented persons are often afraid … to report exploitation to law enforcement because they fear that their immigration status will cause them to be removed from this country,” he said. “They’re especially vulnerable to this type of crime. It’s all too prevalent here.”
Yeni Silva-Renteria, executive director of The International Rescue Committee, said she was aware of the concerns raised by HB 2350. “I’m an immigrant myself. I work with a lot of families that are mixed-status. This bill definitely brought a lot of fear and questions about their safety in communication and collaboration with law enforcement,” she said.
“I’m very grateful for both the sheriff and chief to talk to us about what is the plan for them moving forward because of this bill. We will continue to advocate to unite the community and make sure that the collaboration and communication with law enforcement continues.”
Sullivan was adamant: “Nothing is going to change. Definitely nothing,” he said. “We might have an extra tool of prosecution if we do come up with a case that meets that three-prong test. I think that’s a good thing.”
“When it comes to members of the undocumented community, they have nothing to fear here.”
Written by Stefania Lugli, this story was originally published by The Journal and Planeta Venus, a Spanish-language digital and print media partner. It is republished here under partnership agreement with The Wichita Journalism Collaborative.
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