On Feb. 9, the Indiana Senate Pensions and Labor Committee, with an 8-1 vote, passed a controversial immigration bill likened to the notorious Senate Bill 1070 passed in Arizona last year — a bill critics have said effectively legalizes racial profiling.
A day later, the U.S. Census Bureau delivered a population report to the legislature that showed Indiana's Hispanic population had increased 81.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, following a 117.2 percent increase the decade before.
The two events were coincidental, but they are most certainly related.
Like the rest of the country, Indiana is getting less white, and rapid Hispanic population growth is a big reason why. In 1980, non-Hispanic whites made up 90.2 percent of the state's population. By 2010, that number had dropped sharply to 81.5 percent. In Indiana, Hispanics accounted for 43.4 percent of the population increase from 2000 to 2010 (some eight out of 10 were minorities of all kinds). Nationally, Hispanics represented 51 percent of the population growth. With a total Hispanic population of 389,707, Indiana now has more Hispanics than Ohio, which has 5 million more people.
Meanwhile, the state gained a mere 67,080 non-Hispanic whites, up 1.3 percent to 5,286,453 people. Hamilton County alone gained 66,643 non-Hispanic whites, leaving the other 91 counties to divide up the remaining 437.
Hispanics in Indiana landed not in a political sweet spot, but a very sour one. At 6 percent of the population, they are visible. But there aren't enough to form a statewide political force to keep SB 590 — which passed the Senate on Feb. 22 and goes to the House if Democrats ever return from Urbana, Ill. — from seeing the light of day.
If the trend continues, that may change. Backers of SB 590 may say they're fighting for better enforcement of existing laws; but the battle they're really fighting is about demographics and political power.
The changing 29th
It is no accident that the senator behind SB 590 is Mike Delph, R-Carmel, whose district is front and center in the overall trend toward the state's becoming less white, and more Hispanic (and more black and Asian).
His district, which starts in western Clay Township in Hamilton County, then turns left and goes south to Pike and Wayne townships in Marion County, has some of the strongest minority growth in the state, particularly among Hispanics. Of the Indiana's 50 state Senate districts, Delph's 29th District ranked 10th in fastest percentage of Hispanic growth (170.9 percent) between 2000 and 2010, sixth in the highest number of Hispanics added (7,257), and ninth overall in total number of Hispanics (11,504). The white-minority split in 2010 was 64-36. (Pike is now the only majority-minority township in Marion County, while Wayne has the most Hispanics.)
Delph told NUVO he never thought much about immigration when he was first elected in 2006. But the issue got his attention during his first town meeting as a state senator, at which West Side residents spoke out against what they said were problems caused by illegal immigrants.
"What caught my attention was law-abiding citizens feeling helpless," he said. "They felt like their government was not listening to them."
Delph wasn't the only state senator ready to introduce SB 590-style legislation. But he did so, beginning in 2007, figuring he had the necessary "street cred" and cultural sensitivity to make it palatable, based on his having studied in Mexico City and interned for Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro, and on his strong command of Spanish.
"That was a completely naïve assumption on my part," Delph said. Instead, Hispanics who were close to Delph avoided him, for fear of getting tarred for associating with him. Delph instantly became one of the most controversial political figures in the state.
But that hasn't stopped Delph, even as his district has become more Hispanic and less Republican. (As Delph notes on his own website, the 29th District went 56-44 in favor of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.) Delph says illegal immigrants are being exploited on the job and driving down wages for Hoosiers (something liberals might agree with), that they're costing the state's schools, prisons and other public programs money that needn't be spent (something conservatives might agree with), and that they could be targets for terrorist recruitment (something... say what?).
Delph's original version of this year's bill was softened in committee, but only a bit. Merely not speaking English would have been enough for police to inquire about immigration status under Delph's original bill; the bill now requires a higher standard, defined legally as "probable cause."
Police could also have held suspected illegal immigrants in jail indefinitely. Now they can only hold someone long enough to determine immigration status.
Still, the gist is the same. Enough so that Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso) told The Indianapolis Star the changes amounted to putting "lipstick, rouge, eyeliner and fake eyelashes on an ugly bill."
Ugly or not, SB 590 has positioned Delph to be the next big Indiana Tea Party darling. Delph has pointed out his original bill predated the movement by several years, but it's that crusade that has Tea Partiers forming draft-Delph movements to run against perceived Republican turncoat Richard Lugar in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary, an option Delph says he hasn't ruled out.
The politics of Hispanic growth
Indiana's growing minority population was widely credited with putting the state over the top for Obama. But in 2010, whether because minorities didn't turn out as well, or because the Tea Party backlash was stronger, Indiana got the most Republican state government it's had in long while.
Tea Party enthusiasm, however attractive it may prove for politicians like Delph now, may not be enough to counter the seismic shifts we've seen. In that sense, Indianapolis may be instructive for the long-term power the Hispanic vote may hold. The Democratic Marion County sweep in 2010, in the headwinds of Tea Party-mania, came in part because the county's demographics are turning against the Republican base. In 10 years, the non-Hispanic white-minority split went from 70-30 to about 60-40, with Hispanics the main driver of that trend.
In 2006, as a first-timer, Delph ran with no opposition. But in 2010, he had a Democratic opponent who got about 40 percent of the vote. Changing demographics helps to explain why Delph had to work much harder his second time around.
But Delph's feeling that the rule of law is being subverted trumps any calculations on what SB 590 might mean for the Hispanic vote. He chafes that some of his fellow Republicans don't agree with him. The full Senate vote on the revised bill was 31-18, with five Republicans, including Greenfield's Becky Gard, siding with the 13 Democrats against. (The lone Senator not voting on the bill: Delph, who had to take his bar exam that day.)
Also against the bill: State Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican who is one of the signers of the Indiana Compact, a "declaration of principles," which states, among other things, that immigration is a "federal policy issue."
Business and religious leaders have lined up against the bill as well: Eli Lilly & Co., Cummins Engine, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Mennonite Church USA, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Indiana Farm Bureau and others lumped with what Delph calls "countless other ivory tower elite organizations."
A good deal of the concern is fiscal. Opponents warn of a possible business backlash against Indiana for passing such draconian legislation and the possibility that new talent will be repelled by the new Hoosier Inhospitality. For those reasons, at least two senators, including Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville), who voted for the bill, have suggested it be tabled and sent to a summer study committee.
There is not yet a House or Senate district that is majority Hispanic. But legislators, businesses leaders and others are seeing the Spanish handwriting on the wall.They realize their future professional survival might hinge on whether they can get some level of Hispanic support.
The numbers don't lie.
- Graphic by the Indiana Business Research Center at IU’s Kelley School of Business, via STATS Indiana, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau from March, 2011.