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VIEWPOINT: Legislation could make Indiana unwelcoming

January 28, 2008

Anxieties about immigration legislation introduced this session are growing. If the bill passes, businesses that "knowingly" hire undocumented workers will face harsh penalties: threeyear probation for companies found to have hired undocumented immigrants; for a second offense, loss of the firm's license to do business in Indiana. And it would be a misdemeanor to transport, conceal or harbor an unauthorized immigrant; a second offense would be a felony.

The law would require the Indiana attorney general to investigate complaints against businesses said to hire undocumented immigrants; local prosecutors would have to take action against employers suspected of breaking the law; the Indiana State Police would have to train local law enforcement authorities to target companies that might hire undocumented workers. All this could divert scarce resources from current crimefighting priorities, and perhaps impose greater burdens on taxpayers.

To what end? For most employers, the law's direct impact would be small. Federal law prohibits hiring illegal immigrants, and most Indiana companies comply. The targets of the new law will be two other groups: businesses that hire unauthorized workers because they don't understand the law, and businesses that do so because they choose to ignore the law.

For a business that might now be hiring undocumented workers because it doesn't understand the regulations, making hiring mistakes could have dire consequences. Moving to a neighboring state could seem prudent. Or the company might minimize its risk by avoiding potential employees who could conceivably not be who they claim to be. Qualified applicants with what seems to be proper documentation could be rejected simply because of the high cost of making a mistake. In effect, an applicant's accent could outweigh his qualifications.

Even businesses that don't hire illegal workers could suffer. The research-dependent companies that drive the state's economic growth must compete for top talent from around the world. They want to attract well-educated and creative immigrants to Indiana. The proposed legislation would make Indiana seem like a less welcoming place for newcomers. Companies competing for the best and brightest from around the global economy may thus choose to locate in states that appear more hospitable.

Provisions that penalize transporting, concealing or harboring undocumented immigrants are making churches and health care providers fearful they could be punished for delivering services to immigrants.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates some 50,000 undocumented immigrants now reside in Indiana, which implies several tens of thousands of illegal workers: an unacceptably high number, but a small fraction of Indiana's total labor force of more than 3.2 million workers. The state is far from being in a crisis, and abuses can be corrected without divisive legislation. Better training and communication can help businesses that want to comply with existing laws. Mechanisms within existing laws can identify and sanction companies that intentionally break the law.

As Hoosiers wait for politicians in Washington to adopt reforms that draw the undocumented population out of the shadows, let's remind ourselves just how valuable immigrants have been and will be to the state's economic and cultural well-being. Our growth will depend on our ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest from around the world. Indianapolis has made great strides as an international city. Let's avoid adopting laws that create more problems than they will solve, work toward a solution at the federal level, and encourage communication to employers about the rules surrounding the hiring of immigrants.

For more information on Indiana immigrants, go to www.icenterindy.org.


Thomas is president and CEO of the International Center of Indianapolis.
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