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Kentucky agencies tell lawmakers they mostly don’t keep data on undocumented migrants

A police officer directs traffic outside of Christian Academy of Louisville.
A police officer directs traffic outside of Christian Academy of Louisville.

Kentucky lawmakers are trying to determine how state agencies interact with undocumented immigrants, but several say they don’t keep that data.

State lawmakers probed various Kentucky agencies — from Kentucky State Police to the Kentucky Department of Education — on how many undocumented migrants the organizations interacted with in the last several years. For the most part, they were disappointed in their efforts.

Due to federal law and court decisions, some state agencies cannot ask for information on people’s immigration status or ethnicity. For example, a state police officer cannot ask for a person’s immigration status in a routine traffic stop, per federal law. And public schools can’t ask about a child’s immigration status either, under a landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe.

State election officials also said they have seen no evidence of legal or illegal noncitizens voting in Kentucky elections.

But some state lawmakers seemed intent upon collecting that information regardless, pushing Kentucky State Police Commissioner Phillip Burnett, Jr. to explain why the data isn’t available at an interim committee hearing Tuesday.

“It really is disturbing to me that we can't ask someone about their status,” said GOP Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence. “We pass laws all the time that are more strict than what federal guidelines are in lots of things. Is there anything that this legislature can do so that we give you the tools to be able to attain that type of information?”

Burnett explained that federal trumps state laws. However, data on the immigration status of those actually arrested for a crime is available, but according to Burnett, is largely kept by the jails and delivered directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Otherwise, Burnett said people with different immigration statuses don’t go through some different process.

“We would process them like we would any other person,” Burnett said. “They could be given a citation, they could be given a warning, they could be arrested, just depending.”

According to the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Kenton County, over the last five years there were about 1,360 arrests of undocumented migrants in his county. But that information rarely comes through his office — U.S> Immigration and Customs Enforcement gets that information directly from jails and acts from there.

Immigration is, after all, usually a federal issue.

But this is a presidential election year, and Kentucky lawmakers have already shown a penchant for wading into immigration disputes. According to the Pew Research Center, “dealing with immigration” is one of the top issues Americans think Congress and the president need to consider this year, and one of the dividing lines between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Earlier this year, Kentucky Republicans jumped on a bandwagon of several other Republican-controlled state legislatures in passing a resolution to support Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in his dispute with the Biden administration over securing the U.S. border with Mexico from an influx of migrants.

A new Texas law allows state police to detain undocumented immigrants, which has heightened tensions with federal enforcement authorities.

No evidence of noncitizen voting

At the committee hearing Tuesday, lawmakers continued to express concern that undocumented people or noncitizens may be registering to vote in Kentucky — a concern which each agency and Secretary of State Michael Adams swiftly rebutted.

“During my tenure in office, I have seen no evidence that non-citizens have voted or attempted to vote in our elections,” Adams said. “But that does not mean we should not be concerned about this issue and fail to take proper precautionary measures.”

In November, Kentuckians will be asked on the ballot if the Kentucky Constitution should be amended to further clarify that noncitizens are ineligible to vote. Adams said it's already implicit, but the ballot question would leave no room for doubt. Non-citizens are already unable to vote in federal elections.

Tabatha Clemons, president of the Kentucky County Clerks Association, also said they have seen no evidence of any noncitizen — with legal immigration status or otherwise — attempting to vote in Kentucky elections.

“We surveyed our members when we received the questions from this committee and asked them to respond. All of them responded saying that they have not had encounters with undocumented immigrants being successful in voting,” Clemons testified.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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