By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Amidst concerns that the Boston Marathon bombing may derail federal action on comprehensive immigration reform, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is turning up some collective heat on Congress to move ahead.
The Republican Zoeller, representing 35 state attorneys general, traveled to Washington D.C. last week, three days after the deadly explosion, to appear at a press conference with congressional authors of a newly introduced bill that would overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
He stood with the bipartisan legislative group known as the “Gang of Eight” to make a point: “We’ve got a broken system and it needs reform,” Zoeller said, after returning home. “Those members of Congress should get no quarter in explaining why they can’t do their job.”
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday on the 900-page immigration bill offered a glimpse of just how hard that job may be. Democrats and Republicans on the committee clashed over whether they should take into account that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, here legally.
Meanwhile, a handful of conservative Republicans, including Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, have already called for the bill to be delayed, citing fears raised by the Boston bombing and questions about the existing legal immigration system.
Zoeller is having none of it. Having been caught up in a court fight over a controversial anti-immigration law passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2011, Zoeller believes the federal government has shirked its responsibility for too long.
“I think we should heighten and maintain as much expectation (on Congress) as we can,” Zoeller said. “I don’t want them to get into ‘Oh, its too hard to do.’ ”
Zoeller said the federal government’s years of inaction on immigration reform helped trigger the wave of state laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration, including the 2011 law passed by the Indiana General Assembly.
Last month, a federal judge struck down two major parts of the Indiana law as unconstitutional, including the provision that allowed for warrantless arrests of undocumented immigrants.
Zoeller had declined to defend those portions of the law after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar warrantless arrest provision in an Arizona state law. But he took up another cause: Joining with other attorneys general in states across the nation to push Congress to act on what they argue is a federal issue.
“We’re not going to give anybody any cover for failure to do their duty,” Zoeller said of the bipartisan group.
The politics of immigration has long stalled Congress from acting on comprehensive legislation that addresses the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. The last attempt to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, lead by Republican President George W. Bush in 2007, died in Congress.
The new legislation, filed last week, is just as sweeping as the 2007 bill. It increases border security, provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, reforms the visa system for legal immigrants, and requires employers to use an electronic database to ensure they hire workers who are in the country legally.
While forces began mobilizing to kill the bill before it was even filed, Zoeller remains hopeful that there is enough public pressure to get Congress to act on the legislation, rather than letting it die like the recent gun bill that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers.
“Washington likes to play the game of lowering expectations,” Zoeller said. “I will not help them lower the public expectation that they do their job.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.