Immigration Executive Order Causes Anxiety In VP Mike Pence's Hometown

Feb 16, 2017
Originally published on February 16, 2017 9:22 am

In Indiana, Vice President Pence's hometown has one of the top concentrations of skilled immigrant workers in the country. In Columbus, Ind., manufacturers and residents depend on open borders to move both products and people, but continued uncertainty over the Trump administration's immigration policies is leading to some anxiety there.

The first thing to know about Columbus, about 45 miles south of Indianapolis, is that it's a company town — the headquarters of Cummins, a big global engine-maker. Its local staff represents a fifth of the Bartholomew County's entire labor force.

The second thing to know is that this town has the lowest unemployment rate in Indiana. Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Frey that says when jobs do come open, there are only three options:

"You can develop talent, you can import workers, or you can export jobs," Frey says. "And we're not ready to export jobs."

Developing talent takes time, so for now, Frey says this city is competing for job applicants worldwide. That means Columbus is trying its best to be welcoming for thousands of skilled foreign workers and their families, like Dalia Mohamed's.

The Sudanese-American citizens who live in a big, airy house a short drive from the Cummins plant, where husband, Khalidd Eleawad, is an engineer. About 1,400 of the company's 9,500 local workers, or 15 percent, were hired on H1-B visas.

Right now, Mohamed says her family is in limbo. They usually visit Sudan in the winter,then fly their Sudanese relatives to Indiana in the summer — but with so much uncertainty around President Donald Trump's now on-hold immigration order, which targets Sudan an six other countries, they don't want to risk it.

Mohamed is Muslim and wears a hijab. She says the changes she's noticed in town since Trump's inauguration are palpable.

"I don't go out that much after Jan. 20, because my friends, they have been through so many harassments, so — so that's why I just kind of stay home," she says.

Her husband Eleawad says this isn't good for his employer. He notes that Cummins relies on global diversity to help sell its engines around the world.

"If you depend on just — I would say, 'true American' people to do everything, you wouldn't be able to go to European market, or Middle East market or China or India, because you have no idea about their culture, no idea about how to sell the product," Eleawad says.

Without those sales, Cummins and this city likely would struggle — the local economy is that dependent on exports. That could be a big problem if President Trump or Congress follow through on proposals to tighten up trade, immigration or visa requirements.

"We'd have to offset that somehow," says Dave Glass, CEO of LHP, a Columbus company that, among other things, designs control systems for self-driving cars. "I think growing would be more difficult."

Glass says that he prioritizes hiring Americans — it's required before trying for a visa — but that there just aren't enough unemployed American engineers to fill his jobs.

"Each year, we're doing that process hundreds of times — and in my understanding, in the last few years, we've had, like, three people apply," Glass says. "So it's not an option."

So while LHP and other companies have no choice but to hire and depend on immigrants, skilled immigrants like Egyptian engineer Omar Elmarazhi do have a choice.

"I'm highly educated, I have graduate degrees," the Cummins employee says. "I know that I'm positively contributing to the economy, and I know that whatever community I'm in, I can positively contribute."

As a highly skilled engineer, Elmarazhi chose to come to the U.S. — and he says he can also choose to take his skills elsewhere if Columbus, Ind., becomes an uncomfortable place for him to work and live.

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Vice President Mike Pence's hometown of Columbus, Ind., has one of the biggest concentrations of skilled immigrant workers in this country. Its economy relies heavily on both the free flow of goods and people. As Indiana Public Broadcasting's Annie Ropeik reports, uncertainty over the Trump administration's immigration policies has people there anxious.

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: The first thing to know about Columbus, Ind. is that it's a company town, the headquarters of Cummins diesel, a big global engine maker. Its local staff is a fifth the size of the entire county's labor force. The second thing to know is that this town has the lowest unemployment rate in Indiana. Local Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Frey says when jobs do come open, there are only three options.

CINDY FREY: You can develop talent, you can import workers, or you can export jobs. And we're not ready to export jobs.

ROPEIK: And developing talent takes time. So for now, Frye says, this city is competing for job applicants worldwide. Columbus, Ind. is trying its best to be welcoming for thousands of skilled foreign workers and their families.

DALIA MOHAMED: Hi, hi.

ROPEIK: Families like Dalia Mohamed's. They're Sudanese-American citizens who live in a big, airy house a short drive from the Cummins plant. Her husband, Khalidd Eleawad, is an engineer there. Right now, Mohamed says her family is in limbo. They usually visit Sudan in the winter and fly their Sudanese relatives here in the summer. But with so much uncertainty around President Trump's now on-hold immigration order which targets Sudan, they don't want to risk it. Mohamed is Muslim and wears a hijab. She says the changes she's noticed in town since Trump's inauguration are palpable.

MOHAMED: I don't go out that much after January 20, because my friends - they have been through so many harassments, so that's why I'm just kind of staying home.

ROPEIK: Her husband, Khalidd Eleawad, says this isn't good for his employer. He notes that Cummins relies on global diversity to help sell its engines around the world.

KHALIDD ELEAWAD: So if you depend on just, I would say, true American people to do everything, you wouldn't be able, you know, to go, you know, to European market or, you know, Middle East market or China or India - right? - because you have no idea about their culture. You have no idea about, you know, how to sell the product.

ROPEIK: Without those sales, Cummins and the city would likely struggle. The local economy is that dependent on exports. And that could be a big problem if President Trump or Congress follow through on proposals to tighten up trade, immigration or visa requirements.

DAVE GLASS: Yeah. We'd have to offset that somehow, you know. I think growing would be more difficult.

ROPEIK: That's Dave Glass, CEO of LHP, a firm that designs control systems for self-driving cars, among other things. He prioritizes hiring Americans, it's required before trying for a visa, but there just aren't enough unemployed American engineers to fill his jobs.

GLASS: Each year, I mean, we're doing that process hundreds of times. And my understanding in the last few years we've had, like, three people apply, (laughter) so it's not an option.

ROPEIK: So while LHP and other companies have no choice but to hire and depend on immigrants, skilled immigrants like Egyptian engineer Omar Elmarazhi do have a choice.

OMAR ELMARAZHI: I'm highly educated. I have graduate degrees. I know that I'm positively contributing to the economy. And I know that whatever community I'm in, I can positively contribute for.

ROPEIK: As a highly skilled engineer, Elmarazhi chose to come to the U.S. And he says he can also choose to take his skills elsewhere if Columbus, Ind. becomes an uncomfortable place for him to work and live. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANCIENT ASTRONAUTS' "I CAME RUNNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.