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Immigrants fear bill’s chilling effect

February 23, 2011

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Newcomers to the United States often find Indianapolis a friendly and welcoming city, but several immigrants said Tuesday that could change if a bill pending in the Indiana legislature becomes law.

Their concern stems from an immigration reform measure that, if passed, would require state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. That includes checking immigration status if they suspect a person they stop for another offense might be in the country illegally.

Speakers at an immigration forum at the Jewish Community Center said Senate Bill 590, sponsored by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, could have a chilling effect on Indianapolis' future economic growth and tarnish its image.

"We need to make sure that Indianapolis is viewed around the world as this welcoming place," said Roland Dorson, president of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, who has said it could deter businesses from locating here.

Much of the immigration debate focuses on Hispanics moving into the U.S. through its southern borders, but speakers who came to this country from other parts of the world said Tuesday they fear they also could face trouble if the bill passes.

"I think this is the greatest threat," said Sofiya Inger, a Russian-born artist who teaches at the Indianapolis Art Center and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Maria Pimentel-Gannon, who moved from Mexico as a youngster, said through her work she deals a lot with immigrants, some of whom are not in the U.S. legally.

"If this thing passes, it is going to be very detrimental," she said. "I think you would have to come visit me in jail."

She called on the 100 who attended Tuesday's session to organize to fight Delph's bill, which passed the Indiana Senate on Tuesday on a 31-18 vote. The measure now goes to the Indiana House.

Supporters say the bill would tell the federal government to start doing its job securing the nation's borders and put anyone here illegally on notice that law-breaking isn't tolerated.

Another panelist, artist K.P. Singh, said he did not have a problem with the proposal.

"Law-abiding citizens don't have to be afraid," said the Indian-born Singh, a practitioner of the Sikh religion who wears a turban and beard. "I have really a great deal of trust in the checks and balances of this land."

Singh often draws public buildings and monuments. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Singh said, officers stop and ask him what he's doing whenever he works on his art in public.

"It is not a burden on me to carry my passport or driver's license," said Singh, who moved to Indianapolis in 1967.

Despite concerns about the bill, some said they find hope in the attitudes of young people.

Habib Diatta, a 2002 emigrant from Senegal, teaches French and coaches soccer at North Central High School, where he encounters diverse students and sees a welcoming attitude.

"This gives me hope," he said.

Ahmed Qasem "Mike" Khuder, who emigrated from Kurdistan in northern Iraq in 2010, said all immigrants come to America because they want to be free.

"I came to the states for good," he said. "I'll be an American because we don't have freedom like this in my country."

Call Star reporter Vic Ryckaert at (317) 444-2761.

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