By Dan McFeely
Cracking down on illegal immigration in Indiana will turn employers into racial profilers and lead to a mass exodus of much-needed workers, opponents predicted Wednesday.
Their warning came at a hearing at the Statehouse during which state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, the author of Senate Bill 335, was accused of promoting a racially discriminatory bill.
"I think you are opening the door for prejudice directed at minorities who are not white," state Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, told Delph during one heated exchange.
"Maybe it's the color of my skin. I look at it differently," said Summers, who is black.
"I think," Delph responded, "people are sick and tired of people playing the race card every time they stand up for the law."
After the hearing, Summers was even more blunt: "I would just like to kill the bill."
That was a feeling echoed by many during three hours of testimony before the House Public Policy Committee. It was the first opportunity for House members to weigh in on the issue this session.
Equally passionate comments were made by supporters who applauded Delph several times and who took turns with opponents at the podium.
Committee Chairman Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, said he expects to hear the bill again early next week, at which time some changes are probable.
A proposed amendment has already been drafted, strengthening the bill by removing a loophole that would exempt employers that hire seasonal workers. The amendment would lower the exemption level from 1,500 hours a year (which seasonal workers typically would not work) to just 500 hours.
The amendment also addresses law enforcement provisions in the bill, forbidding local police from attempting to make a final determination on a person's citizenship on their own. Instead, they would have to rely on federal immigration sources for this.
It would also make it a misdemeanor for a person to file a false illegal immigration claim against a company. And it would grant the governor the power to override a judge's decision to revoke a business license.
The amendment also calls for $1.5 million for the attorney general and Indiana State Police, who will be asked to work with federal immigration authorities to establish training and guidelines for local enforcement of federal immigration laws.
That financial provision means the bill will also have to be heard by the House Ways and Means Committee, which would have to pass the bill in order for the full House to take a vote.
Wednesday's hearing drew more than 50 people to the House chambers. Speakers included paid lobbyists, small-business owners and a Catholic priest from South Bend -- many of whom predicted the bill would send Hispanic residents out of the state for fear of persecution.
The Rev. Chris Cox, the priest from South Bend, said some of the state's "most vulnerable" people will be hurt and will likely flee if Delph's bill is passed.
"What will be the economic impact if they all leave? How much revenue will be lost in local taxes, layoffs and vacant homes?" asked Cox. "If you cannot answer these questions as policymakers, don't vote for this bill."
Tony Rogers, a local businessman, said passing the bill could lead to "a mass exodus of 100,000 people from this state."
"We have to stop and think about how that is going to affect our economy. These people are buying homes, buying cars, they are paying taxes. I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot."
About 55,000 to 85,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Indiana, according to 2006 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, took exception with Rogers' argument, recalling that a few years ago federal agents raided a company in her district, a raid that resulted in 14 job openings.
"More than 200 people applied for those 14 jobs," Walorski said. "When I saw that, it started to change my attitude on the work force. Those 200 people were grateful for the opportunity to apply for those jobs."
But Rogers questioned whether American workers would be willing to take all the jobs that might be open should a mass Hispanic exodus take place.
"They will laugh at me when I tell them what I am going to pay," Rogers said. "Or, they just won't show up the next month. We're lucky to get one decent employee. There are people sitting at home who don't want that job."
George Raymond, a lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said he does not condone illegal immigration, but he, too, predicted big problems if the bill is passed.
"This bill will lead to further discrimination of an employee based on color."
Rep. Eric Turner, R-Marion, told Raymond that a very high percentage of his constituents want the state to do something about illegal immigration. "What would you suggest we do?"
Raymond responded that the better way to address the issue is to force employers to terminate employees who hire illegal workers, rather than revoke their business license. He would also like to raise the threshold, in effect only prosecuting companies that hire 50 or more illegal workers, rather than just a handful.
"It's unconscionable to put 3,000 people out of work for hiring three illegal aliens over 10 years. You are not punishing the guilty, you are punishing the innocent," Raymond said. "A good employer cannot always control what one or two bad employees are doing."