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March 25, 2013

HAYDEN: Is state evolving on immigration?

When Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly decided earlier this year to put off a vote on locking the state’s same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution, it sent a signal that GOP leaders were evolving on the issue of marriage equality.

Could they now be ready to evolve — at least a little — on the issue of immigration?

State Rep. Becky Kubacki, of Syracuse, hopes so. In 2010, Kubacki (whose maiden name is Espinoza) became the first Hispanic Republican elected to the Indiana General Assembly.

Just a few months later, she voted for a GOP-backed bill that barred the state’s public universities and colleges from granting in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants, no matter how long they’d been living here.  

It’s a vote she now regrets. Defenders of the bill said it would send a message that Indiana would no longer be a “sanctuary” for immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally. But Kubacki came to see the bill as unnecessarily punitive, especially for those students, many brought here as small children, who were forced to drop out of college because they couldn’t afford to pay the tripled cost of out-of-state tuition.

She’s sponsoring a bill this session that would roll back that 2011 law for students who were enrolled in college when it went into effect, describing it as a “baby step” toward immigration policies that make more sense.

Some of her GOP colleagues are horrified by the bill, even if they think it’s the fair thing to do. They’ve seen how anything less than a get-tough-on-immigration stance can kill a candidate in a Republican primary.

But Kubacki sees room for movement. She may be right, if you consider how some of the staunchest anti-immigrant Republicans on the national level are changing their discourse.

The starkest example came earlier this month when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- a Tea Party Republican if there ever was one – reversed his long-standing opposition to legalizing the status of illegal immigrants. In a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Rand told the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants that if they want to work in America, “then we will find a place for you.”

Said Rand: “Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society.”

The shift in attitude may be coming less from the heart than the head, as Republicans nationally are working to shore up their eroding support among Hispanics.

But Kubacki also credits people like herself: Socially and fiscally conservative Americans of Hispanic heritage who are becoming more politically active in a Republican party long seen as old, white, and male. “The tent is getting bigger,” Kubacki said.

In explaining to me why she wants to roll back that 2011 bill, she talked about what is was like to grow up as the child of migrant farm workers. She, like her parents, was an American citizen, but she was forced to attend the “migrants’ school” set up in a trailer behind the main school where all the other children got to go. Her mother told her: “That’s just the way it is.”

“I can remember thinking as seventh-grader, there is nothing I can do,” Kubacki said. “I couldn’t change that. Fifty years later, I find myself in sort of that same situation. But now I can say: ‘There is something I can do.’ We’ve got to figure out how we can help these kids; how we can help them become productive citizens.”

• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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