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:: The opportunistic Mike Delph

A Hoosier tradition we can do without

By David Hoppe

Indiana. It figures.

The state is beset with real problems: high unemployment, a sputtering education system and failing grades for environmental quality. We're saddled with an antiquated township system of local government that siphons precious tax dollars away from underfunded public services.

So what are Republicans talking about at the Statehouse?

Immigration reform.

Carmel Republican Sen. Mike Delph has brought forth a piece of legislation, Senate Bill 590, that would require you to prove you're in this country legally if a cop decides he doesn't like the way you look or speak the language - that is, if the cop has what Delph calls "reasonable suspicion" about your status.

Make that if you look Mexican.

Delph and many of his fellow Republicans believe the federal government has made a hash of enforcing the country's immigration laws. That's a fair point. A point, it should be added, that might apply equally to a number of other things the federal government is empowered to do, from conducting foreign policy to the allocation of tax dollars.

When it comes to immigration, though, Sen. Delph and his colleagues aren't content to grumble about the federal government, they're determined to do something about it.

And so Indiana may be on the verge of joining Arizona as having the harshest immigration policy in the country.

Delph's bill would not only demand that people - anyone, that is, with a Latino-sounding name or look or accent - carry proof of their right to be here at all times. It would also impose tax penalties on businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants, insist that government documents and hearings be conducted in English, and require the state calculate the costs of illegal immigration and seek reimbursement from Congress.

Delph has written that, "I do my best to follow and obey both the United States and Indiana State constitutions." Yet in modeling his bill on contested legislation in Arizona, he is arguing for a punitive interpretation of the U.S. constitution that will likely mean a costly trip to the Supreme Court.

Delph has also publicly aligned himself with the Tea Party movement, citizens who express a desire for smaller, less intrusive government. But in extending the reach of state and local law enforcement into a federal jurisdiction, Delph is, in fact, advocating for a bigger, more intrusive and, yes, more expensive role for state government.

Maybe that's why the state's Attorney General, Greg Zoeller, has come out against Delph's bill by signing the "Indiana Compact," a document supported by business, religious and university leaders declaring immigration "a federal policy issue between the U.S. government and other countries - not Indiana and other countries."

Although this bill flies in the face of their supposed political principles, is asking for a costly legal challenge to constitutional precedent, and has been roundly repudiated by the state's leadership class, Delph and his fellow Republican politicians are pressing on. The bill appears to have plenty of support in the Republican Senate, where it was passed in last year's session, only to be derailed by Democrats in the House. Now that Republicans have a majority in that body, SB 590 could become law, yoking Indiana to Arizona as one of the two most anti-immigrant - make that anti-Latino - states in the nation.

How did we get here? Look no further than the turgid state of Indiana's economy. Gov. Daniels and his backers in the punditocracy can crow all they want about Indiana jobs, but peoples' everyday experience keeps insisting that good jobs here are scarce, that our economy isn't really growing. This has created an atmosphere reminiscent of the period right after World War I, when struggling Hoosiers turned their suspicions of immigrant European laborers, Blacks, Catholics and Jews into a virulent political movement that took form as the Ku Klux Klan.

For about five years in the 1920's, the Klan and Indiana politics were practically synonymous. The governor belonged to the Klan and so did the mayor of Indianapolis. In his book, Indiana: An Interpretation , John Bartlow Martin tells the story of how a mob in North Manchester once stopped a train and forced a single, frightened passenger to prove he was not the Pope.

It's tempting to treat a story like this like a rustic scrap of ancient folklore, the kind of thing that happened long ago and far away. But that was 1924. The people in that mob were the great grandparents of today's Hoosiers.

The fear and suspicion that enabled the Klan to become a force in Indiana set this state back in ways we may not have the appetite to deal with, but that we haven't fully recovered from, either. Instead of coming to grips with the structural problems that continue to dog Indiana's economy, politicians exploit the impulse to blame people who look or speak different from the rest of us. Mike Delph may call this "immigration reform," but it's nothing but a new name for an old and toxic kind of political opportunism.

If Delph and his fellow Republicans get this law, Indiana will make news. People will see what's happened here and say: Indiana. It figures.