An Indiana Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday night that its sponsor says would lead to an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration in the state.
The Senate Pensions and Labor Committee voted 8-1 to advance the proposal, which opponents attacked during a four-hour public hearing as opening the door for legitimizing racial profiling.
Dozens of people lined up to testify on the bill, just hours after Indiana's Republican attorney general said he had reservations about the state inserting itself into what is a federal responsibility.
The bill proposed by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, would require police to ask for proof of citizenship or immigration status if they had a reasonable suspicion that a person is illegally in the country.
Delph told the committee that the bill was aimed at putting teeth into existing laws.
"We say 'no more' to illegal immigration," he said. "We want the rule of law restored, period."
Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said he didn't believe any committee members wanted to harm anyone's rights, but that legislators had a duty to uphold the laws that are in place and protect residents.
"I just think it is the right thing to do at this time," he said.
The only committee member to vote against the bill — Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage — said its proposals go to "ridiculous lengths" and were a "bazillion lawsuits waiting to happen."
Opponents outside the Senate chamber during the hearing held signs such as "Welcome to Indiana ... where you will be racially profiled."
Jose Salinas, a Marion County criminal court judge, challenged legislators who support the bill on whether they could understand being forced to prove their nationality.
Salinas said he feared police officers would rely on race, English fluency and last names to determine whom to question.
"Whether we want to believe it or not, human nature is what it is and the envelope is pushed all the time," Salinas said. "That always happens when these kind of laws are put forth."
Delph's original bill included a proposal that could have stripped companies who knowingly hire illegal immigrants of their business licenses after a third offense. That penalty had drawn opposition from business groups and the committee amended the bill to, instead, strip from offending companies whatever tax deductions were associated with each illegal immigrant.
Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, told the committee that the organization doesn't condone any improper hiring and that the revised penalty was far superior in that it wouldn't shut down businesses. He was still concerned an immigration crackdown could hurt the state's business climate.
"We have concerns in terms of economic development and the projection of an air of intolerance," Brinegar said.
Earlier Wednesday, state Attorney General Greg Zoeller joined business, religious and other leaders at a Statehouse event announcing support for what they called rational immigration reform principles.
That group's statement said immigration is a matter for the federal government. It calls for border security and respect for laws, but said that "law enforcement should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code."
Zoeller said taking on immigration enforcement might be "constitutionally suspect or fiscally impractical."
"It is a federal responsibility," he said. "It does us no good to try to assume the federal authority."
Bob Schrameyer, a leader of the Goshen group Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, told the Senate committee that illegal immigration was at least partly to blame for Elkhart County's double-digit unemployment rate.
"Employers have found it far too easy to hire illegal workers, which not only drives down wages to improve their bottom line, but take unfair advantage of a minority group," Schrameyer said. "We are tired of the lawbreakers thumbing their proverbial noses at our system and we tire of the opponents of state immigration legislation continuing their lame claim that it's a federal problem."
Goshen police Chief Wade Branson described the immigration proposal as an unfunded mandate on police agencies by piling more responsibilities on them. He also said it might discourage some people from reporting crimes or cooperating with police for fear of facing deportation.
"This adds another layer of work, detracting from the officers available to investigate and solve other crimes and provide security for the neighborhoods," Branson said.
The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration of its financial costs.