By SCOTT AUST
Finney County Economic Development Director of Communications
Dozens of members of Garden City’s immigrant community packed into The African Shop on Sunday evening for the first of several planned presentations designed to help underserved populations get a better feel for how American democracy works.
Kendal Carswell, Assistant Professor and Field Director at Fort Hays State University, said the event was part of an integrated voter engagement program whose purpose is to increase civic engagement among populations who for various reasons aren’t participating in the democratic process as much as other people in the state.
“The attitude they (immigrants) have about wanting to be informed voters I wish more Americans would take that position. We also talk with people who are working toward their citizenship so they will be prepared once they get their citizenship,” Carswell said.
Carswell said the program, funded through a grant, is non-partisan. Its goals are to increase voter registration and turnout in local, state and national elections and create more engagement between elections.
Two years ago the Kansas Health Foundation announced 10 organizations would receive a total of $2.25 million as part of a multi-state initiative designed to engage under-participating groups. Nine groups in Kansas and one in Missouri receive $75,000 per year for three years under the IVE program.
One of those organizations that is receiving grant funds is Kearny County Hospital. The goal is to increase voter registration, civic engagement and political participation while focusing on improving health outcomes for vulnerable and underserved populations, such as the immigrant and refugee population in Kearny and Finney counties.
“It’s centered around civic engagement,” said Carswell, a full time FHSU professor who contracts with Kearny County Hospital to manage the grant. “One is getting them registered to vote, but also provide some education. People tell me they can’t wait to participate in democracy but don’t understand the issues, don’t know who they candidates are. They want to be an informed, educated voter. I’m working to set up these kinds of events with decision makers, not only with federal but state and local. This is the first one.”
The speaker during the inaugural presentation on Sunday was Congressman Roger Marshall, R-Great Bend.
Marshall talked about his background as a physician and growing up on a farm. He told those assembled that his job as a congressman is to be their voice and the best way to do that is to listen to people but he also noted that there are 800,000 people in the First District.
Many of the questions from the community concerned immigration and work visa issues, as well as people seeking assistance for family members and loved ones caught in limbo of the country’s current immigration system. One woman told Marshall that her husband has been waiting for two years in another country for permission to come here; another person’s loved one has been in that same holding pattern for close to five years.
Marshall referred most questions to a local staffer and office in Garden City. Regarding immigration, Marshall indicated nothing can be done until the country’s southern border is secured.
“Right now, the country is just overwhelmed. There are so many people trying to get in both legally and illegally that we can’t keep up with it. It’s my belief that until we can control the borders, none of these other things are going to happen,” he said.
Marshall said the top priority for immigration is ensuring secure borders, followed by addressing the need for a much more efficient immigration system. He said the immigration process in Canada takes on average 4 to 7 years while in the United States it takes 10 to 11 years. He also claimed 900,000 people are awaiting asylum on the southern border with Mexico.
Marshall said first and foremost, immigration is a national security issue. While there can be border security and an improved immigration system, he added that there just isn’t a good system in place to assess refugees yet.
Amy Longa, of Garden City, pointed out that the immigration system is affecting lives of families right here in Garden City and urged Marshall to take that into account when he talks about representing the people assembled at the African Shop.
As part of the IVE program, Carswell is also working with Jay Steinmetz, an FHSU political scientist who will provide education about how government operates on the local, state and federal levels; discuss liberalism and conservatism; the definitions of republican and democratic parties; and information about the branches of government.
“The grant has about 18 months left. We’re excited,” Carswell said.
Last year, 58 people were registered to vote or received assistance in amending their registration. Between 60 and 70 percent of those individuals actually voted.
“Primarily, last year was spent identifying folks, talking to them about this. And because it was an election year last year we focused hard on that piece. Now it’s education plus registration and voting, trying to identify what barriers keep people from participating,” Carswell said.