Tyson Foods defended its hiring practices after a politician seeking a higher office implied that the company employs immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

It was right to do so, but at the same time it shouldn’t have had to defend itself because the person making the allegation did so only on a speculative basis.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is on a quest to become the state’s next governor, in a recent opinion piece published in the Kansas City Star, referenced Tyson Foods’ plans to build a poultry complex in Tonganoxie, which ultimately was taken off the table amid public resistance and withdrawn support from area elected officials.

Kobach wrote that it was “highly likely that hundreds of unauthorized alien workers would have been brought in to work at the plant.”

He added, “Fortunately, the citizens of Tonganoxie stopped the project."

Tyson refutes claims

Following publication of Kobach’s guest commentary, Hector Gonzalez, vice president of human resources for Tyson Foods’ poultry division, submitted a letter to the editor of the Star, with hopes of setting the record straight concerning Kobach’s allegations.

Gonzalez wrote: “Just as with every employer, team members who work for our company are required to present evidence of appropriate work authorization in the U.S. In the case of Tyson Foods, we voluntarily use every available tool provided by the government to verify the documents of the people we hire.

“But we don’t stop there. We take other steps, including specialized training for our employment managers and the use of an independent outside company to regularly audit our hiring practices.

“Almost 20 years ago, Tyson Foods became one of the first major employers to voluntarily participate in the federal government’s E-Verify program, which is designed to help determine employment eligibility of new hires. In addition, we voluntarily participate in the government’s Social Security Number Verification Service.

“In 2011, Tyson Foods became one of the first large food companies to become a full member of the Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers program, which enables employers to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on employment-verification matters.”

Gonzalez, in his letter, also pointed out that when possible, the company seeks to hire from the pre-existing labor force in the community.

Kobach’s comments not surprising

Anyone familiar with Kobach should not be surprised that he made such a reckless allegation, especially if it would further his own cause.

Kobach is well known by the people of Kansas, or at least those capable of non-partisan thinking, as a xenophobic one-issue politician with an irrational fixation on illegal immigration.

His major legacy in his nearly seven years as the state’s top election official is his voter identification law, which is largely aimed at preventing immigrants in the U.S. illegally from voting. While he has claimed that voter fraud is a major problem in the state, far too few actual valid cases have been found to justify the time and money he has spent at the taxpayers’ expense.

He has also helped draft similar legislation for other states, so his passion on the topic runs deep.

I would suspect Kobach already knew his claims about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally working for Tyson were, at best, ill-informed. Tyson Foods employs about 5,700 people in Kansas. If Tyson did employ people in the U.S. illegally, and more specifically at its plants in Kansas, wouldn’t someone as passionate about illegal immigration as Kobach have a full knowledge of this?

While I’m not familiar with all of Tyson Foods’ Kansas facilities, I know exactly where its two facilities in Reno County are, as well as its facilities in Finney and Lyon counties. There is some degree of a multicultural population in all of those counties, particularly Finney County, but I never once when in those counties gave a single thought about whether someone whose skin color was different than mine was here under illegal circumstances. My guess is that is the case with the majority of Kansans.

If Kobach wants to continue to work in the public sector in Kansas, he should not be making unsubstantiated claims about companies that do business in the state. If Tyson Foods was doing things illegally, there would be some rationale for him making such claims. However, it does not appear Tyson has given any justifiable reasons for Kobach to have done so.

Instead, it appears Kobach tried to exploit the anti-Tyson sentiment in Tonganoxie and Leavenworth County and took a cheap shot at Tyson Foods, without being informed of the company’s practices, for his own political gain.

That is not good leadership, and that display of poor leadership may well come back to bite Kobach. While the folks in Leavenworth County expressed that they don’t want a Tyson Foods plant, people in Montgomery County and Cloud County have expressed another opinion. Voters in those counties, as well as in the counties where Tyson already has a presence, just might remember that when it comes time to show up at the polls.