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Kenley: Revamp immigration proposal

March 15, 2011

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A top Senate Republican is looking for alternatives to Indiana's immigration proposal.

As it stands now, the proposal would allow police officers to investigate a person's immigration status after any violation, including a traffic stop. But Sen. Luke Kenley wants to table that plan because he no longer thinks it would reduce Indiana's illegal immigrant population.

Kenley is looking to other states for ideas, particularly Utah, where legislation headed to the governor would require police to investigate the status of only those charged with serious crimes and would give guest-worker permits to some illegal immigrants.

Kenley, R-Noblesville, is worried about how roadside immigration enforcement would affect Indiana's reputation. But more important, he doesn't think it would work.

If an alleged illegal immigrant were caught during a traffic stop, police could arrest the person in Indiana and turn the person over to federal authorities. The federal officials, however, likely would simply release the person, who would be expected to show up voluntarily for a federal court date in Chicago.

The bill's author, Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, said he does not think most illegal immigrants would make it to that point.

"You can ask logistical questions about procedure," he said. "But I think (Senate Bill 590) will lead to massive self-deportation of those that are unlawfully in the state. I think people who are unlawfully in the state will make a decision to leave on their own. For most people, they won't get to the step where they're pulled over."

Immigration plans in Indiana and Utah -- if they become law -- likely would face a court challenge, because the U.S. Constitution says immigration is the purview of the federal government. But here and in Utah, legislators also face a tough dilemma.

By making federal immigration enforcement the responsibility of police officers, a state risks burdening police departments, alienating citizens who raise officers' suspicions, and chasing away companies, conventions and prospective employees.

"A lot of people feel that the law should be enforced," said Kenley, who recently called one of the authors of the Utah bill for ideas. "But on the other hand, there's a concern that you don't want to have a Gestapo-state type of activity to deal with the situation. You've got to remember this is a nation of immigrants."

Delph's bill took inspiration from a different Western state: Arizona. If it becomes law, a police officer would have the power to contact federal authorities and check on the immigration status of any person stopped on a violation, such as a broken taillight, if the officer had "reasonable suspicion" the person was an illegal immigrant.

The State Police expect they would spend between $1 million and $5 million in training for and enforcing the immigration law. Delph said he thinks the law would survive a court challenge and doesn't think the bill needs any more study.

He called Kenley's suggestion to table it "just a creative way to try to advance the agenda of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce."

Groups from the Chamber of Commerce to the Mennonite Church have lined up against the measure. Immigrant advocates, including Indianapolis attorney Angela Adams, worry it would "create a potential for racial profiling." Representatives of business giants Eli Lilly and Co. and Cummins fear such a law would subject their diverse (and legal) work forces to harassment. And state hotel and restaurant associations fear it would put off conventions and businesses.

But the bill has wide support in the legislature, where the Senate approved it 31-18 last month.

Kenley, the powerful Senate appropriations chairman, voted for SB 590 twice, once in committee and once on the Senate floor. Now he wants to send the proposal to a summer study committee.

He said he changed his mind after a meeting with State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell, who explained how enforcement works.

"They end up turning quite a few of them loose," Kenley said "So regardless of how honest the intent is, it just is not a workable proposition, and it seems like the Utah approach might provide a different way to deal with that."

Utah's Legislature has approved its immigration package, which is awaiting the governor's signature.

Delph called Utah's worker permit program "amnesty lite."

"We should stand up for the rule of law," he said. "We should stand up for our citizens who may be out of work and forced to compete with Third World standards. . . . We have to come up with a solution to this problem, not only for state and local governments, but also for the taxpayers themselves who lose millions of dollars each year because of the problem of illegal immigration in Indiana."

The House sponsor of Delph's bill, Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, the assistant majority caucus chairman, said he is open to suggestions but "would have reservations about any program that resembled amnesty."

But at least one House Republican shares Kenley's desire to table SB 590. Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico in the 19th century, said she would use the time to gather suggestions from other Hispanic community leaders.

"You don't want to hurt the wrong people, the law-abiding Hispanics," Kubacki said. "I don't want to have to worry about being stopped. I don't want my brothers to have to worry about something like that."

"This bill could be a good bill if we devoted the time and if we could make it enforceable," she added.

Any debate or action on immigration, however, will have to wait until the legislative stalemate with House Democrats ends.

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