Let’s preserve our Hoosier hospitality


Note: The following op-ed appeared in the The Indianapolis Star on April 17, 2011.

As president of the state’s largest public university, I have felt it generally wise to keep my opinions to myself on many of the controversial issues being debated in the Indiana General Assembly. I have observed that our legislative process, which necessitates thorough and rigorous debate of the issues before a decision is made, usually leads to an acceptable and reasonable outcome.

A good example would be the discussions over the immigration bill, SB-590, which passed fairly quickly in the Senate but now is undergoing some much needed changes in the House. I am encouraged to see that House members are removing provisions that would have required state and local police agencies to attempt to enforce federal immigration laws.

I have been closely following this debate since it began in January. My concern comes from the point of view of being president of an internationally renowned research university that enrolls almost 7,000 international students on our eight campuses. All these students are here legally with visas.

Yet the Senate version of this bill posed a very frightening threat to them. Even though they are here legally, they could have found themselves handcuffed and hauled off to jail for no other reason than being unable to show convincing proof of their status to an inquisitive police officer.

As a recently naturalized citizen of the United States, I understand their concern. My pride in being an American citizen is strong, but it has not erased my instantly recognizable Australian accent. As this bill was initially written, that alone could have been enough to provide a police officer with reason to question me about my citizenship.

At any given time in Bloomington, we are host to thousands of people whose ability to communicate in English is limited at best. In addition to students, hundreds of distinguished academics from universities all around the world visit us every year. The university—and all our students—benefit enormously from these exchanges. It is my hope that all of these visitors will continue to feel welcomed in Indiana.

I well understand the valid concern many Americans hold for illegal immigration and the problems it creates in our society. I don’t blame my fellow citizens for wanting enforcement of existing laws. But I would urge them not to try to place this burden on our local police agencies.

The rules for entering the United States are complex, as is the documentation. Some foreign visitors must have visas, but many can enter the U.S. without visas for short-term stays. Our local and state police officers would need intensive and time-consuming training to gain the knowledge they would need to fairly enforce these laws. This would take time and focus away from their primary responsibility of protecting the public.

I was not at all surprised when U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who blocked implementation of a similar law in Arizona, stated in her ruling that enforcement would almost surely result in the wrongful arrest of many legal resident aliens.

Some critics of this legislation have argued it would give police a free ride for racial profiling. I was never persuaded of that. In my experience, Indiana’s law enforcement officers strive very hard to be professional in their conduct and treat everyone they deal with fairly. I believe the more likely outcome of this law is that it would have put police officers in the nearly impossible situation of trying to do a job for which they are not adequately trained or supported.

Though I question whether such a bill is even needed, I welcome the changes being made to the present legislation. Indiana has a well deserved reputation for Hoosier Hospitality, and these changes will help us preserve this reputation.