Within the divisive issue of illegal immigration, both sides of the debate agree on two key points — the country’s immigration system is broken and Congress should be the entity to fix it.
To date, however, Capitol Hill has been unable to reach a consensus on what should be done. House Speaker Paul Ryan has put off doing any comprehensive immigration overhaul until at least 2017, and the Obama administration’s executive actions providing some relief to undocumented residents are under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
So the Indiana Senate is wading into the issue. Senate President Pro Tempore David Long has convened the Senate Select Committee on Immigration Issues to examine the impact “unauthorized aliens” are having on the state and to discern what actions Indiana can take under federal law.
The committee’s first meeting on April 19 at the Statehouse highlighted that areas of agreement are small and often fleeting. In fact, committee member Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, opened the hearing by reading a letter from Senate Democrats calling the entire committee into question.
Fueling some of the criticism is the committee’s chair, Sen. Mike Delph. He is upfront about his bias against undocumented Hoosiers and is the author of Indiana’s 2011 tough immigration law, parts of which were struck down as unconstitutional.
The Carmel Republican repeatedly insisted the committee was impartial, would be respectful of all views, and was just gathering information for a report it will make to the Senate in November. Still, his decision to invite Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Dale Wilcox to testify at the first meeting ignited more criticism. Kobach and Wilcox, executive director and general counsel for Immigration Reform Law Institute, are two prominent attorneys pushing against illegal immigration.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said he has always given his colleagues on the other side of the aisle the benefit of the doubt, but the all-white male composition of the committee, along with the decision to bring in controversial anti-immigrant advocates, changed his view.
“I am finished,” Taylor said. “I can no longer say (Indiana Republicans) don’t have an agenda.”
Delph bristled at the descriptions of Kobach and Wilcox. He cited their professional accomplishments, called them experts and dismissed as “garbage” the Southern Poverty Law Center linking the two to a hate group.
“Everybody wants to be tolerant from the left but they don’t want to be tolerant of people that are conservative,” Delph said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States in 2014. These individuals comprise 3.5 percent of the country’s total population and 5.1 percent of the labor force.
Mexicans are the largest group at 5.6 million, or 49 percent of all illegal immigrants.
Indianapolis immigration attorney Kevin Munoz posed the question of what the country should do with the undocumented immigrants who are already in the states. Individuals with nonlegal status living the U.S. largely have no path to gaining legal permanent residency and deporting all of them is impractical.
He described the Senate committee as “misguided and misinformed” and harming the most vulnerable — the children who were brought across the border by their parents. Having formerly worked in elementary education, Munoz has seen students work hard and make plans to attend college then have their dreams derailed when they learn of their illegal status.
For Delph, the plight of the undocumented children is the consequence of their parents’ decision to enter illegally. The young adults need to ask their mothers and fathers what they are going to do to correct the situation, and the parents need to think of some options and suggest to policymakers what they are willing to do, he said. Hoosier taxpayers should not bear any responsibility because they did not make the decision to come without legal status.
“We’ve always been a country that says there are consequences to your decisions and now we want to say in this touchy-feely politically correct culture we live in today, we want to absolve people of all the consequences of very poor decision-making,” Delph said.
Munoz countered that even the federal government in recent years has been taking a more humanitarian approach. Judges in deportation hearings can consider the immigrant’s length of time in the U.S., moral character and the impact losing a parent would have on children. After that, the judges have the discretion to cancel removal and provide the immigrant a green card.
As an immigration and criminal defense lawyer, Munoz has seen the harm deportation can cause. He has represented adults who were removed from the U.S., and then a few years later been called to represent their children in criminal matters.
In his opening remarks at the Senate committee hearing, Delph linked terrorism and Indiana’s heroin epidemic to illegal immigration. He said he recognized that immigrants are facing hardships but sovereign states have borders and breaking the law has consequences. Then he concluded by saying “Legal is legal and illegal is illegal.”
Having heard that refrain before, Indianapolis immigration attorney Clare Corado said immigration is “just more complicated than that.”
She described the current immigration system as “crazy” and contrary to what many people believe, an individual wanting to emigrate does not follow a straight line from filing an application to becoming a citizen. There are hundreds of options and the requirements are random, she said.
Moreover, the wait time to enter is very long because the federal government imposes a cap on the number of immigrants who may enter each year. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. was allowing 15,820 family preference visas per country, according to the U.S. State Department. Mexico currently tops the list with 1.34 million applicants and the Philippines follows with 388,214.
Like Munoz, Corado also posed the rhetorical question that if entering legally or getting documented status once in the U.S. is an easy process, then why are so many immigrants unauthorized?
During the latter portion of the committee hearing, members of the audience were permitted to speak. The individuals who stepped up to the microphone showed there is little middle ground on the issue of illegal immigration.
Natisha Cooper was driven to political activism by her concerns over immigration. She has protested, holding signs that asked, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” She worries if the laws barring illegal entry are not upheld, “more illegal immigrants will flood Indiana.”
Guadalupe Pimentel Solano, wearing an Undocu Hoosier t-shirt, underscored the complexity of immigration by detailing her family members’ differing legal statuses. She noted her brother, having fought in Afghanistan, is now a U.S. citizen.
“I find it offensive that while my brother was getting attacked 30 times a night, people were making legislation that attacked his family,” she said.
To Corado, that kind of philosophical divide cannot be bridged and will continue to hinder the conversation. Instead, she advocated the opposing sides should agree to disagree and then focus on the data to determine the impact of undocumented workers.
Like the immigration laws, determining the economic impact is complicated, she said. Removing illegal immigrants from the state will translate into fewer people buying food, writing rent checks and paying taxes, which means the equation is not a simple as deporting 1,000 people will open up 1,000 jobs.
Several times at the hearing, Delph referred to a study done in 2012 by the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels that calculated illegal immigrants cost Indiana $130.95 million annually. Delph said he has asked the Pence administration to update the calculation.
The nine-page 2012 report looked at the schools, state prisons, health care and public assistance, then calculated the money spent by multiplying the estimated number of undocumented residents with the average cost per individual or day. It also noted services for which illegal immigrants are not entitled and areas where the federal government provides financial support to the state.
Missing from the report was the economic benefit that immigrants bring.
In doing a cost-benefit analysis of Alabama’s 2011 anti-immigration law, House Bill 56, University of Alabama economist Samuel Addy showed the positive economic impact illegal immigration has. The law drove immigrants from the state, which reduced demand for goods and services and, in turn, shrank the economy. And as they left, Addy found the state stood to lose $2.3 billion to $10.8 billion in gross domestic product.
Corado brought the Addy study to the committee. After her remarks, Delph asked her to help the committee find “independent, realistic information.”
Following adjournment, Delph again acknowledged he is not a disinterested party.
“I have my strong biases, as we all do, but my biases will not guide the outcome of the commission,” he said. “It will be the collective judgment of the individual members of the commission.”•