The Senate Select Committee on Immigration Issues has been charged with making recommendations to the Legislature about undocumented workers but at the committee’s recent third meeting, business professionals and attorneys repeatedly discouraged the state from trying to fix a broken system.
They reminded the committee members that only the federal government can make immigration law and the measures Indiana has adopted in recent years have actually hurt the state’s economy and public safety.
“You impose all of these burdens on employers and you’re placing Indiana in a less-competitive position than other states,” immigration attorney Angela Adams said after the June 15 hearing. “I think we need to continue to be able to attract the best and brightest, and having some negative or additional burdensome state law is not moving us in the right direction.”
Still, those testifying at the hearing said the country’s immigration system needs to be reformed.
Representatives from the agricultural industry, restaurant and hospitality sector, and the construction industry all testified their industries rely on immigrants to fill jobs that U.S. citizens do not want.
American farmers are very dependent on immigrants with about 80 percent of the workforce foreign-born, according to Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Of that group, at least 52 percent are unauthorized to work in the U.S.
Agricultural workers can get legal status with the H-2B visa but growers are not using the program because it is expensive and a difficult system to navigate. As Boswell explained, the nature of farming is that when the crops are ripe, the workers have to be hired immediately and that process often takes place on the tailgate of a truck.
AFBF is advocating for immigration reform that includes enforcement, a new guest worker program and an adjustment of the status of experienced agricultural workers. Also, any new programs need to be user-friendly.
“At its core, it’s got to be streamlined,” Boswell said. “You should not have to hire a lawyer to hire a farm worker.”
Jenifer Brown, chair of the immigration practice group at Ice Miller LLP, provided the committee with details about the complexity and confusion employers confront when trying to verify applicants are authorized to work in the U.S. As an example, she said a tutorial on filling out the two-page Form I-9 can take two to three hours.
She recommended the Legislature take steps to bolster the state’s workforce and make Indiana workers more attractive to employers. A better use of the General Assembly’s time would be focusing on employee initiatives that equip Hoosiers with higher skills that enable them to compete in the global economy.
“I think there are a lot of institutions around the state of Indiana that have done remarkable work in that area … but it’s something, no doubt, we could double our efforts on,” Brown said after her testimony. “It would be great to see the Legislature focus maybe on that instead of trying to remove people.”
Restrictions on business
The committee considered additional steps the state might be able to take to discourage hiring of unauthorized workers. The group queried several presenters about requiring businesses to use the federal Employment Eligibility Verification system when hiring workers.
Chris Schrader, director of government affairs for the Indiana State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management, discouraged that idea. He pointed out the E-Verify system is limited and relies on documentation that is susceptible to forgery and alteration.
In addition, E-Verify provides no safe harbor for businesses. Employers who use the system and hire workers approved as having legal status by the system could face penalties if those employees are subsequently found to be undocumented.
“(Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has historically argued that the presence of identity thieves in the employer’s workforce contradicts the employer’s position that its reliance of E-Verify was in good faith,” Schrader said.
Committee Chair Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, also broached the possibility of the state pulling a business’s license if it hires undocumented workers.
“What should happen to businesses who knowingly and willingly hire illegal immigrants?” he asked. “Should they be shut down, should they be fined, what should happen?”
Schrader said under the current provisions, the company would be fined. But shutting a business down, he said, would be disproportionate considering the many ways that well-meaning employers can stumble over the complex immigration system.
“You’re issuing, in essence, the death penalty to an organization and everybody who works there,” he said.
Steps already taken
Indiana has passed laws trying to discourage unauthorized workers and their families from settling in the state. It now prevents undocumented residents from getting driver’s licenses and receiving in-state tuition, but some cautioned the senators that those steps have actually hurt Indiana.
During his testimony before the committee, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Capt. David Allender of the narcotic and gang unit, said allowing undocumented residents to go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and get driver’s licenses would be good for public safety and national security.
Indiana Code 9-24-9-2 requires anyone applying for an Indiana driver’s license verify his or her identity and lawful status. Delph did not seem to want to ease that restriction, telling Allender, “I’m not comfortable rewarding lawbreaking.”
However, Allender pointed out the cost to law-abiding drivers. Undocumented people are already driving on Indiana roads, but because they cannot get a license, they cannot get insurance, so they have no coverage if they’re in an accident.
In addition, the captain noted, law enforcement is hindered. When police officers encounter an undocumented resident, they have no way to determine the individual’s identity. If the individual is suspected of committing a crime, the officers have no BMV photos to show witnesses.
“That hurts us as police officers,” he said.
Adams pointed to House Enrolled Act 1402 passed in 2011, which prohibited allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, making Indiana just the third state in the U.S. to have such a measure. Since then, bills have been introduced to reverse that provision, most notably during the 2014 and 2015 sessions when Democratic Sen. Earline Rogers of Gary and Republican Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville co-authored bills, but the measures were never even given a hearing.
Speaking after the immigration committee meeting, Adams said allowing undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition would enable more of them to go to college, earn degrees and become more productive members of their Indiana communities.
“They get a degree, they have increased earning power, increased purchasing power, (which) in turn affects the economy greatly,” she said.
The testimony resonated with committee member Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte. He said he would not have a problem giving undocumented workers driver’s licenses if they could prove they had proper auto insurance.
Arnold acknowledged the Statehouse is aware immigration is a federal issue but he also expressed the frustration many feel about Washington’s inaction on reforming the system. His exasperation over Capitol Hill not trying fix the situation is one of the reasons he decided not to run for reelection this year.
“How do we get Washington off dead center,” Arnold asked. “When are those people going to put partisan politics aside and start addressing issues that directly affect workers in this state (and) the workers in this country?”•