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Post-mortems begin for immigration bill

Failure of crackdown legislation defies a simple explanation

By Dan McFeely

A weakening economy. The property tax debate. Concerns about racism.

Businesswoman "very happy": Veronica Guerrero, 41, owner of Creaciones Guerrero on West Washington Street, helped customer Jasmine Andrade, 14, on Saturday.

All contributed to some degree to the failure by the General Assembly last week to pass Sen. Mike Delph's proposal to crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

The defeat for Delph and supporters of the bill came despite widespread support among Hoosiers for immigration law reforms.

It also failed despite passage by the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-led House earlier in the session.

And it failed despite Delph's willingness to compromise with other lawmakers on certain key points of his proposal.

Under the legislation, companies that hired illegal immigrants could have had their business licenses suspended, or revoked after three instances.

Opponents say legislators finally recognized the bill carried negative racial overtones and would have scared many Hispanics out of Indiana -- legal and illegal workers who would leave their jobs and their homes and further weaken a struggling economy.

"This bill would have been a disaster for our industry," said John Livengood, a lobbyist representing Indiana's restaurants and hotels.

Supporters accuse Hispanic activists of playing the race card and say lobbyists such as Livengood were more interested in preserving access to a low-wage work force that allows employers to reap fatter profits.

"The people of Indiana have a reason to be extremely suspicious," said Allen Taylor, head of Hoosiers for Secure Borders, a group that favors eliminating social services and other benefits for illegal workers.

An emotional moment

Officially, Indiana's proposal died late Thursday when a House and Senate conference committee could not agree on provisions of the proposal -- which originally called for the Indiana State Police to enforce federal immigration law and would have made it a crime to conceal or harbor an illegal immigrant for profit.

A last-ditch attempt Friday to resurrect the legislation failed when Sen. Thomas K. Weatherwax, R-Logansport, and Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, refused to sign off on a proposed compromise.

But its advocates think the bill's fate was sealed by the House leadership, which did not appoint its conferees for more than a week, delaying action on the bill.

Others say Senate leadership can take some of the blame for appointing a chairman, Weatherwax, who was not a supporter.

At an early committee hearing, he raised issues about the harshness of the bill.

It did not help matters that lawmakers were busy hashing out final negotiations on the property tax reform package.

Delph, R-Carmel, initially lashed out at the leadership of both chambers, calling the conference committee a "circus" and charging that politics had taken precedence over the will of the people.

On Friday, a calmer Delph offered up an apology for his remarks.

"I don't think I've been that mad in a long, long time. And I am still not happy," Delph told his fellow senators. "I want to apologize to Senator (Dennis) Kruse and to Senator Weatherwax for suggesting in any way, shape or form that they are corrupt."

He blamed it, in part, on "wearing my emotions on my sleeve."

"The legal way"

If Delph had calmed down by Friday, many of his supporters had not.

"This is a real tragedy," said Ray Mejia, a retired, Mexican-born Army Reserve officer who spoke out in favor of the illegal immigration bill.

"What took place in the last couple of days has been about the service industry, which seems to have gotten in with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce."

Mejia, whose appearance earlier this year at a Statehouse news conference while wearing his uniform drew a reprimand from his superiors, said local Hispanic leaders have missed the point about setting the example for immigrants.

"When I came here as a student, I washed dishes, I bused tables, I pumped gas," he said. "But I never had to look over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking for me. Because I did it the legal way."

Taylor, who kept supporters updated with his Hoosiers for Secure Borders Web site, directed his anger at Hispanic leaders and the business lobby.

"I think the concerted effort by those who labeled the issue as racial was probably the predominant factor," Taylor said. "Running a close second is the inherent self-interest of certain business interests and their lobbyists and the effect they have on our state legislature."

Joy for some

On the other side of the issue, there was joy on West Washington Street, home to a cluster of Hispanic residents and businesses.

Veronica Guerrero, a gift shop owner who came to the U.S. illegally as a 9-year-old girl before gaining citizenship through the 1986 amnesty, said most of her customers were celebrating.

"I am very happy, and so is everyone else," Guerrero said. "Everybody knows, and we've been calling each other."

Livengood said his clients in the restaurant and hotel industry -- who employ many in Guerrero's neighborhood -- were just as relieved.

"They were concerned about fleeing," Livengood said. "It would have resulted in undocumented workers leaving the state; documented workers as well."

Asked whether his own efforts to pressure lawmakers helped kill the bill, Livengood replied, "I can't look inside each legislator's head.

"It seems to me it was a combination of things. . . . The facts of the bill, the emotional side of the issue, the outpouring from the Hispanic community and, I think, the business community that was sending the message about the negative effect it would have on the Indiana economy."

Hispanic challenge

An estimated 50,000 to 85,000 illegal immigrants live in Indiana, part of an overall Hispanic population of 250,000 to 300,000.

Indiana this year was one of at least 30 states to try to penalize employers through legislation. More than 350 bills addressing illegal immigration have been proposed across the country.

As the only Hispanic lawmaker in Indiana, Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, said the time is now for the Latino community to get better organized.

"(The battle) showed the gaping hole in representation the Hispanic community has in the General Assembly.

"We have the same concerns as everybody else. We know the system is broken. And nobody knows it more than those exploited by the system."

Candelaria Reardon called Delph's bill "bad public policy" and said the solution, whatever it might be, should come from the federal government.

But Hoosiers might not want to wait for that.

An Indianapolis Star-WTHR (Channel 13) poll last year indicated 70 percent of those surveyed oppose allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country or earn their citizenship.

Some voters are saying they will take revenge at the ballot box against lawmakers who failed to pass Delph's bill.

"I am really disappointed," said Bonnie Jeffers, a 65-year-old Southside resident. "The people we have in (the Statehouse) are not gutsy enough to stand up for our rights. I am going to watch really closely who I vote for."

Taylor promised a similar response from his supporters.

"This was just one battle," Taylor said. "This is a war to save America and American values. This isn't over by a long shot."

Delph also promised to keep fighting.

"It is my hope that the federal government will deal with it," he said. "But if they choose not to and the business community chooses to do nothing over the next year . . . I will be back with a tougher illegal immigration bill. And I will be relentless."

Indiana Contact Info

MCDC of Indiana

State Leader Pro Tem
Dennis Drake
Phone: 812-630-5403

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