Kansas’ Roger Marshall stokes fake fentanyl fears to attack perfectly legal immigrants | Opinion

Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal

Sen. Roger Marshall keeps finding new ways to be anti-immigrant.

The Kansas Republican usually defaults to well-worn “keep them out” rhetoric to demonize migrants. “Securing our southern border should be a top priority,” he wrote in a typical online post in June, “yet the Biden Admin continues to sit back and let thousands of illegal immigrants and fentanyl come through our border EVERY DAY.”

That’s misleading, of course.

Fentanyl is a problem in the United States, but it’s not so much an “illegal immigrant” problem. Ninety percent of illicit fentanyl is seized at official border crossings, and more than half of that is brought into the country by U.S. citizens. Those facts don’t really square with Marshall’s narrative, but he’s sticking with the anti-migrant narrative. No surprise there.

So what’s the new wrinkle? It’s not just that Marshall wants to crack down on migrants who are here illegally — he wants legal migrants to be vulnerable to their employers.

That’s the takeaway from Marshall’s Monday press release, which announced that he had “slammed” the Biden administration for a proposed new Department of Labor rule protecting migrant farm workers — specifically, those who hold H2A visas granted by the federal government.

“At a time when our nation’s agriculture industry faces a severe labor crisis, this proposed rule by the Biden Administration makes it difficult and costly for our Ag businesses to keep and recruit H2A visa holders,” Marshall said in the release. “We need substantial and productive reforms to our nation’s immigration policy, not government regulations that further penalize hard-working farmers and ranchers.”

Sounds bad! But also incredibly vague. Marshall and his media team “slammed” the president without saying what, specifically, was objectionable about the proposed rule. We’re left to guess the actual problem.

So what would the new rule actually do?

Well, it includes some anti-trafficking provisions. And it would require farms that employ the visa holders to provide seat belts on the vans that transport their workers. That makes sense: Transportation deaths are one of the leading causes of farmworker deaths.

That’s probably not the source of Marshall’s objection, though. Who is against seat belts in this day and age? Which leads us to the other thing the proposed new rule does: It makes it easier for those temporary farm workers to unionize.


The rule doesn’t require big farms to unionize, of course. But it does allow workers to meet with labor representatives in employer-provided housing, and protects them from employer retaliation for those meetings. The idea is to give migrant workers — the folks who are most vulnerable to exploitation — the tools to improve their sometimes dangerous places of employment.

“The goal is to have some other eyes on the workplace,” Ruben Garcia, a UNLV law professor, told Bloomberg Law. “In most cases, a labor organization, a union does that monitoring when a government can’t or won’t.”

The odd part of Marshall’s objection is that it’s not at all clear that Kansas farmers — the folks he ostensibly represents in the Senate — would be much affected much by the rule.

It’s true that the number of H2A visa holders has exploded nationally, doubling between 2016 and 2022 to 370,000 workers. But there were just 849 H2A workers in Kansas in 2020. That’s a minuscule percentage of the state’s agricultural labor force. And farmworker unions aren’t all that active in Kansas.

So it’s not clear why Marshall is throwing himself into this fight.

Then again, he rarely resists the opportunity to take a shot at migrant workers — even the ones who help build the Sunflower State’s economy. Recall that late last year, he raised objections to granting permanent residence to immigrants who had ever used food stamp benefits to feed their families — even though large numbers of migrant workers in Southwest Kansas meatpacking plants rely on charitable food pantries to make ends meet.

Put these examples together, and Marshall’s approach would require migrant workers to be self-sufficient — but not too self-sufficient. Which means they can’t win. And you have to wonder if that’s the point.