The Indiana General Assembly’s special immigration committee concluded its work Nov. 10 much the way it began — with legislators frustrated the federal government isn’t addressing issues surrounding undocumented residents.
Members of the Indiana Senate Select Committee on Immigration Issues echoed one another by saying the states and municipalities are directly impacted by illegal immigration but they have little recourse for dealing with any problems because the matter is solely under the purview of Washington, D.C.
“Locally, we hear the complaints from all the people in our community about the jobs, about the economy, that supposedly the illegal aliens are causing problems but there’s very little that we can do,” said Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte at the final meeting. “It’s going to have to require federal action.”
However, Arnold and his colleagues on the committee were hopeful that their work and the resulting 775-page report would spur Congress and the White House to enact immigration reform. Committee chair Mike Delph, R-Carmel, said he would give copies of the report to Indiana’s congressional delegation as well as to Indiana governor and vice president-elect Mike Pence.
Reviewing the report was the only task at the final hearing. The report was a compilation of testimony and data presented during the previous hearings. It did not offer any recommendations or propose any legislation.
The committee was created by Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, during the 2016 legislative session to study the effects of illegal and legal immigration on Indiana. Over the course of five hearings, beginning in April, the group of five senators examined economic and public safety issues related to immigration.
The committee began its work on a controversial note. One of the panelists who testified was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hard-liner who is credited with drafting tough immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona and developing president-elect Donald Trump’s plan to have Mexico pay for the construction of a wall along the Southern border.
Largely, though, much of the testimony came from a mix of local attorneys, law enforcement officials and business representatives.
While the senators all said they learned a great deal from their work on the committee, none seemed to have changed their views about immigration.
Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, used his comments on the report to push back against the stereotype that immigrants coming in the country are criminals and drug addicts.
“These are hardworking people,” he said, “and, if you ever worked with any of them, most of them, 92 percent of them, are worthy of being citizens of the United States and we can’t treat them as animals, or that they’re evil or gangsters.”
Delph countered with the common refrain that undocumented residents are breaking the law and must be held accountable.
“There are billions and billions of people throughout the globe but we cannot make them all United States citizens,” Delph said. “As a sovereign nation, we have a right to determine what those laws are. We have a right to put restrictions on those laws and, quite candidly, people that live outside the sovereignty of the United States have an obligation to follow those laws.”
Citing his confidence that Trump along with the Republican House of Representatives and Senate will focus on border security and undocumented residents, Delph is not planning to introduce any immigration bills during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.
But he did point to a step he said Indiana could take — revoking the license of a business that hires undocumented workers. He introduced such a bill last session but the Indiana Chamber of Commerce opposed it, saying the penalty was too harsh. The legislation died in committee.
“We’ve got to have law-abiding citizens, corporately and from an individual standpoint,” Delph said, “and those businesses that intentionally violate the law and profit off of cheap labor should be held accountable in my opinion.”
Mrvan highlighted the Democratic caucus’s intention to introduce a handful of bills, which he described as focusing on the humanitarian side of immigration. Included in the mix would be bills allowing undocumented students residing in Indiana to qualify for in-state tuition and enabling undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses.
Similar bills have been proposed previously but never gained much traction. Yet, speaking after the final hearing, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, was receptive to taking another look at granting driver’s licenses since that would then enable illegal immigrants to obtain car insurance.
Also, Boots said he would like to see an expansion of Indiana’s E-Verify law, which currently applies only to businesses with state or federal contracts. He believes that using a computer verification system during the hiring process could significantly curtail illegal immigration by restricting employment opportunities — the main incentive undocumented workers have for coming into the country. However, the senator said he did not want to impose an additional requirement on Hoosier employers unless the federal government first stopped mandating businesses file paper forms for each new hire.
Boots, too, noted the incoming Trump administration may be able to move forward on immigration reform but he was skeptical it would act, and he doubted the Indiana federal delegation will give much attention to the committee’s report.
“If they don’t want to do it themselves,” Boots said of the federal government and immigration, he wishes they would “pass the authority down to the states and let the states address this issue as each state sees fit.”•