In his opening remarks to the first meeting of the Indiana Senate Select Committee on Immigration Issues Tuesday, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordville, made a statement that is likely to have been uttered in statehouses around the country. He said Congress is not addressing the country’s broken immigration system so states have to step up.
However as the inaugural meeting demonstrated, reaching a consensus on the best way to step up may be difficult.
The committee, formed by a memorandum by Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, has been tasked with studying the impact “unauthorized aliens” have on Indiana and what the state can legally do. Committee chair Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, repeatedly stressed the goal of the committee was to learn and it would study the issue in an impartial and respectful manner.
“We will be tough but we will be fair,” he said at the meeting.
In addition to Delph and Boots, other committee members are Republican Chip Perfect and Democrats Frank Mrvan and Jim Arnold.
Delph said in his opening statement he recognized the immigration issue involved real people facing hardships but he also noted sovereign states have borders and breaking the law has consequences.
“Legal is legal, and illegal is illegal,” he said.
The three-hour-plus meeting attracted a peaceful, overflow crowd with many observers watching the hearing on the monitor in the hallway outside the meeting room. Several attending the session wore T-shirts that said “I support undocu Hoosiers” and one protestor held a large poster board that carried the message, “Free markets require the free movement of labor, goods and capital. #LetThemIn.”
Boots told the crowd Indiana needs immigrants because the state does not have all the expertise it needs but the problem is with undocumented immigrants.
“We love immigrants,” he said. “My wife is an immigrant. She’s here legally.”
Mrvan highlighted the controversy surrounding committee in his opening statement. He read from a letter sent by Senate Minority Leader Timothy Lanane to Long which noted initial concerns that the committee could be punitive in nature were confirmed by the two individuals who were invited to testify at the first meeting.
Lanane was referring to Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, and Dale Wilcox, executive director and general counsel for the Immigration Law Reform Institute. Prior to the meeting, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a fact sheet on the two attorneys linking them to the “anti-immigrant hate group” the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Delph defended both men. He described Kobach as an expert and said he was thankful the Kansas official was volunteering his time and talent to the committee.
Kobach focused much of his testimony on Indiana’s 2011 immigration bill, authored by Delph, that was modeled after the stringent Arizona law. Two provisions in the Hoosier law, one that allowed for warrantless arrests of people with uncertain immigration status and one that prohibited the use of consular identification cards, were struck down in federal court.
Other provisions in the law still stand and Kobach offered advice for strengthening the statute.
He recommended Indiana enact a law that would prohibit state funds from going to any municipality or county that becomes sanctuary community. He also said the state should mandate all Indiana businesses use the federal E-Verify system to confirm employees are legally allowed to work in the U.S. Finally, he advised Indiana to require individuals show proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
During his presentation, Wilcox outlined the laws states could enact that would pass constitutional muster.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and called the composition of the committee into question. He noted the committee was comprised of five white males who were making decisions about a group of people they do not represent.
“I’m offended, I’m hurt,” Taylor said.
Committee member Perfect, from Lawrenceburg, called Taylor hypocritical, saying the Indianapolis senator was criticizing the committee for judging others while Taylor, himself, was judging the committee members.
Mrvan was angered by Taylor’s comments. He told Taylor he resented the use of the term “white people.” The Hammond Democrat said he was elected by people of different races and ethnic origins.
“I think you owe us all an apology,” Mrvan said to Taylor.
After the first meeting adjourned, Lanane along with Mrvan and Arnold released a joint statement critical of the committee.
“If the Republican Leadership would focus on reforming immigration in a way that simply lets people contribute to our communities and economy, rather than systematically vilifying entire populations of families, maybe we could get somewhere on this issue,” the Democrats said.
Delph also released a statement, calling the first meeting a success.
“We heard from immigration experts on the current status of immigration law across the country compared to Indiana as well as informative testimony from members of the public,” he said. “The most compelling testimony came from Ursula Good, a U.S. citizen from Russia who legally emigrated from Eastern Germany.”
The committee is scheduled to meet again at 1 p.m. May 25 in Room 431 of the Indiana Statehouse. No agenda for that session has been released.