ELKHART - Legislation meant to crack down on illegal immigrants is piling up around the country, Indiana included, and it's got Noe Gomez, a cook here originally from Mexico, puzzling.
"We're not bothering anybody," said Gomez, who, while not disclosing his migratory status, sympathizes with the undocumented population. "The majority of us are working."
Ask Sherry Moore, though, and she'll give you an earful. The presence of illegal immigrants in Elkhart County, mainly Mexicans and Central Americans drawn by work at area factories, infuriates the retired X-ray technician. Indiana's new immigration law, while a start, doesn't go far enough.
"We pay their education, we pay their medical bills and they take our jobs," said Moore, a member of Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, or CILE, a local anti-illegal immigrant group. "They're taking over our country."
Illegal immigration is a thorny, divisive issue. Don't expect Indiana's new law meant to address the matter - Senate Enrolled Act 590, set to take effect July 1 - to settle things. The sides are as passionate as ever, with calls for the feds to take action being the only seeming area of convergence.
Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Alliance for Immigration Reform in Indiana, said this of SEA 590, the target of a pending federal lawsuit and temporary injunction request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union: "It's unenforceable, it's unconstitutional and it violates federal law."
The Alliance came down against SEA 590, signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels last month, as it was being debated by Indiana lawmakers earlier this year. Instead, it touted "a humane approach" to the issue by the feds, one that didn't split families mixed with undocumented and legal members.
CILE President Bob Schrameyer, who testified before the Indiana Senate in favor of SEA 590, said the law isn't perfect, but it's a start. He was most praiseworthy of provisions that spur, mandate in some cases, use of E-Verify, the federal program designed to help employers check the migratory status of workers,
Increased use of E-Verify, Schrameyer thinks, will make it tougher for illegal immigrants to find work, making them leave Indiana or preventing them from coming here in the first place. "Really that's the only way we're going to solve the problem. You're never going to get rid of the ones that are here unless the jobs dry up," he said.
the impact: tangible or psychological?
SEA 590, authored by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, was much tougher as first proposed. Originally it would have required police to check the immigration status of detainees they believed to be undocumented, perhaps the most controversial element. It also would have required use of only English in schools and state government offices, except in certain prescribed circumstances.
Those provisions were later removed, as well as another that would have subjected landlords to criminal prosecution for harboring illegal immigrants if they knowingly rented to them despite their migratory status.
Left behind, after all the dust settled, was a watered-down version that mandates use of E-Verify by state offices, schools and public libraries as well as contractors hired by those entities. Also, Indiana companies will lose tax credits and tax breaks applicable to undocumented workers, unless they use E-Verify, among other things.
Accordingly, whether the new law, which could be scaled back even more if the ACLU suit succeeds, has a tangible impact remains a matter of debate.
Indiana Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, an SEA 590 co-author, laments removal of the provision that would have let police check on detainees' migratory status. Still, he hopes the law, as is, sends out a signal.
"I hope that it will, in the long term, convey to people that are contemplating coming to Indiana illegally that there is a mechanism that will monitor their status," Neese said, alluding to the E-Verify provision. The law sends the message "that there is a correct procedure to come to Indiana."
Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies, said SEA 590 isn't "as bad as it could have been."
It will have a psychological impact, though, making Latinos, immigrant or otherwise, wary of Indiana. Given the relatively small number of suspected illegal immigrants in Indiana and Latinos' overall contribution to population growth in the state, he warned of the possible repercussions.
"If they want to lose population ... then this is a good way of doing it," said Brown-Gort, who's already fielded worried inquiries from the immigrant Hispanic community in the area. SEA 590, he continued, "tells Latinos that this is not a good place."
The ACLU suit challenging SEA 590, filed in tandem with the National Immigration Law Center, says the Indiana law, even in its watered-down state, has unconstitutional provisions. The groups single out what they describe as overly broad authority granted local police to arrest immigrants and others involved in certain proceedings with U.S. immigration authorities. They also point to a measure making it a crime to use or accept identity cards like those issued by Mexican consular offices to Mexican nationals living in the United States.
"It looks like a very bold attempt by the state of Indiana to make life difficult for immigrants," said Karen Tumlin, a lawyer with the NILC.
The NILC and ACLU call for a temporary injunction halting implementation of SEA 590 on July 1 pending resolution of their federal suit is the focus of a hearing Monday in Indianapolis.
Need to do more
If Indiana is serious about cracking down on illegal immigrants, Moore, the CILE member, said more measures are needed. The woman, full of horror stories involving her and others' run-ins with suspected illegal immigrants, wants a law that would require verification of the immigration status of every worker by every employer. What's more, the children of illegal immigrants should not be able to claim automatic U.S. citizenship, even if they're born on U.S. soil.
"They seriously need to do more," she said.
Whatever the case, if making immigrants nervous is the aim, nervous enough that they leave, SEA 590 may already be making a mark. It certainly makes Abraham Gamboa a little uncomfortable. Originally from Mexico City, he now stocks fruits and vegetables at a Hispanic market in Elkhart.
"We came to work, to work hard," he said, taking a pause from stocking pears. "I haven't committed any crime and I've been here five years."
He's aware of the SEA 590 talk, though, and while he can't cite the details of the law, he said it's made him, and other immigrants, put up an extra layer of defense. "We don't go out as much to avoid problems. Just work and then home," he said.