After passing in the U.S. Senate in June, comprehensive immigration reform has come to a screeching halt in the House of Representatives. Now reform advocates are looking for votes from GOP lawmakers from states like Indiana to help push it through.
“You come to Indiana, and it’s totally different (than in Illinois). Our political landscape is more Republican than it is Democrat and so we face a different sort of challenge,” said immigrant rights activist Jesusa Rivera of South Bend.
Much of Indiana thinks of itself almost as a border state fighting a tide of immigrants who came here illegally. That notion was evident two years ago when Hoosier lawmakers passed Senate bill 590 which was modeled after the Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Portions of Indiana’s law has been struck down by the courts, and the debate over immigration has now moved from the states to the national level. The U.S. Senate passed a much ballyhooed bipartisan bill last month, but its fate is far from certain in the GOP-controlled House.
And that’s where Indiana comes in. If even one of the state’s seven Republican representatives was open to reform, it could signal a gradual shift within the party and provide a crucial vote in the House.
But it won’t be easy.
“I think it’s absolutely insane to give amnesty to 11 million illegals at a time when we have over 20 million who are under and unemployed, said Cheree Calabro, an anti-reform advocate. “I think we need to take care of our own people first and granting amnesty is not going to help anyone.”
Calabro lives in Valparaiso, Ind., about an hour east of Chicago, and is a member of the Indiana Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement. She and other conservative activists are watching the immigration debate closely.
But so is Rivera, who worked on farms as a migrant worker, even as a child. She says this issue is personal.
“This isn’t really about politics, it’s about people, it’s about human beings, it’s about us. The politics just happens to play in the game but it’s about human lives,” Rivera said. “That’s what really at stake.”
Many of those people who Rivera assists are immigrants who attend church at St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church on South Bend’s predominately Latino West Side.
On a recent Sunday hundreds of undocumented immigrants worshiped with prayers and songs in their native Spanish, without worry of arrest. Teresa (who asked us not to use her last name) prays for a pathway to citizenship for her and her teenage son Jorge. They’ve lived in Indiana for years.
“Reform is very important so that me and others like me can come out of the shadows,” Teresa said in Spanish.
Also attending Mass was 18-year-old Crista and her three American born siblings — Crista says her parents are here illegally.
“My dad has to be extra cautious when driving. My mom has to be extra cautious when looking for jobs and things like that. That’s a big deal. It’s a struggle for us,” said Crista, who also asked that her last name not be used.
Crista worries that the bill in Congress may never get across the finish line.
“We try to keep up to date, my dad, my mom. We were still hoping for reform but the ways things are going, we’re doubting,” Crista said. “It’s just been years and years of waiting.”
This year was supposed to be different. After President Obama won reelection with a majority of the Hispanic vote, Republican leaders like Marco Rubio said the party had to get behind immigration reform. So did traditional GOP backers like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Kevin Brinegar is executive director of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
“This issue has stagnated for far too long. The status quo, the current situation, has been harmful to our economy,” Brinegar said. “They want very strongly for Congress to address immigration reform.”
Brinegar points to a recent poll that showed 60 percent of Hoosiers support some type of reform.
“I think in some circles (immigration reform) is divisive,” Brinegar said. “But I think a strong majority of Hoosiers want Congress to enact immigration reform and get some of these issues resolved so that in part we can move on to more pressing issues.”
But the question remains: where will they get the votes?
One might come from U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican from near Elkhart who represents Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District.
In recent talks with Walorski, Rivera says the freshman congresswoman has been surprisingly open to talking about reform.
According to Rivera, Walorski is sensitive to the plight of immigrants from her years as a Christian missionary overseas.
“[She is familiar with] the challenge of coming back home and meeting with families from Romania who overstayed their visa and were trying to get back on track,” Rivera said. “So the challenge there was the actual system, the process. So, she understood that.”
Walorski declined to be interviewed, but in a statement to WBEZ, the Congresswoman said the nation’s immigration system is broken but needs a thoughtful approach to fixing it. The statement called for tighter security along the U.S.-Mexican border, along with an enhanced Visa program.
Earlier this year on FOX News, Walorski spoke about the need for some kind of reform.
“I believe if there’s ever a time to actually have an honest conversation about immigration, it’s now,”Walorski told FOX News. “It’s going to be between now and early summer. If that window passes, then it’s probably going to be a long time before we have open ears on both sides.”
That has conservative activists like Cheree Calabro worried. Calabro says she’ll keep close tabs on Walorski and other Hoosier lawmakers.
“The amnesty bill is so bad that anyone who votes for it is going to have a problem come re-election time include Ms. Walorski,” Calabro said. “Jackie Walorski was very much against illegal immigration when she was in the General Assembly. And, I’m getting a sense from her that something has changed.”
One thing that’s changed is the voter demographics of Walorski’s 2nd District.
In 2012 Walorski won her race by just a single percentage point. This, in a district that’s 8 percent Latino and growing.
Follow WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.