Is Indiana welcoming to immigrants?

GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb maintains Indiana is welcoming to everyone and that the state has resources to help

By: and - October 7, 2022 7:00 am

As Gov. Eric Holcomb makes trips abroad to attract economic development, advocates at home criticize Indiana for not doing enough to be welcoming to immigrants. (Photo from Gov. Eric Holcomb's Twitter)

As Gov. Eric Holcomb participates on another international economic development trip this year, advocates at home wonder whether Indiana is doing enough to overcome its bureaucratic hurdles and welcome immigrants to the Hoosier State. 

Ellen Wu, a history professor at Indiana University with a focus on immigration, said people tend to remember America as more welcoming than it really is, focusing on the influx of white Europeans through Ellis Island.

“This kind of warm and fuzzy idea that the United States welcomes people from all over the world… that’s just a small part of a larger story and certainly glosses over the many variations,” Wu said.

Wu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, recalled growing up in Indianapolis with a small group of second-generation Asian Americans, the vast majority of whom have left Indiana because they felt unwelcome or disagreed with the state’s conservative politics.

Indiana University Professor Ellen Wu (Photo from IU)

“It seems like our state leaders have really invested in business and (our) economy… but Indiana needs to remain attractive not just for immigrants but also for their children and grandchildren,” Wu said. “There’s sort of a lot in the negative column, to be honest.”

Holcomb, a Republican, maintains that Indiana is “very accommodating, very welcoming” to immigrants. He pointed to Indiana’s universities and employers “attract more than their fair share” of people from other countries, especially when compared to the rest of the United States.

The governor said, too, that he wants “to increase awareness and access” for anyone in Indiana who feels “detached” from resources they need — such as those pertaining to healthcare or job access. That goes for both native Hoosiers and those arriving to Indiana from other states or countries, he continued.

“What I’m doing is rolling out the welcome mat around the world to come to Indiana because … Hoosier hospitality is known far and wide,” Holcomb said Thursday, speaking via Zoom from Zurich. “There is a blinking, neon Hoosier welcome light on, and I spread that message everywhere I go.”

Asian American community seeks supportive government

Holcomb’s trip earlier this year to Taiwan and South Korea sparked pushback from the state’s community of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, coming just weeks after he signed a near-total abortion ban. 

A coalition of groups, the Indiana chapter of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Monroe County, released a statement blatantly encouraging companies not to come to Indiana.

“These efforts to support and attract business investment into Indiana stand in stark contrast to the way that Indiana is treating its own women, girls, and families – including those in the Indiana tech community,” the statement said. “We also urge South Korean companies to weigh the risk of locating in a state where maternal and infant mortality rates are more than double the rates in South Korea and where Asian American and immigrant women from Asia have been targets of xenophobia and hate.”

But Wu, a member of the abortion advocacy group NAPAWF, said this wasn’t the first time Gov. Holcomb didn’t respond to the concerns of Indiana’s Asian American and Asian immigrant population.

In the early 2021, around the same time a gunman killed six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, NAPAWF called on Holcomb to condemn the “racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Indiana’s Asian American communities.”

The petition highlighted several racist encounters across the state.

In Plymouth, two women of Hmong descent were told at a motel that Chinese clients would need to quarantine for two weeks. A cancer doctor was ejected from a gas station in Martinsville. A woman called a woman of Asian descent an “Asian b****” and accused her of spreading COVID-19 at a Mooresville grocery store. 

“Asian American Hoosiers deserve to live safely and free of fear,” the petition said. “We need leaders who will do everything in their power to ensure the security and prosperity of all Hoosiers.”

But Wu said Holcomb never gave a direct response, instead condemning all racism and diverting their concerns to the state’s Chief Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity Officer. 


“This was a time when there were people around the country who were feeling really unsafe as the pandemic was hitting and a lot of people were… (confronted) verbally and sometimes even threatened physically,” Wu said. “State leaders really have an opportunity to draw people in and include them from different communities into our policymaking and really listen to people.”

Wu noted that while the state has various boards and commissions focused on minorities — a list that includes: Black and Minority Health, Hispanic/Lation Affairs, Native American Indian Affairs and the Social Status of Black Males — there is no advisory board for Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, even as neighboring states like Michigan have the advisory boards. 

Bureaucratic barriers to inclusion

In particular, language can be inaccessible at government agencies. Some states and cities, such as California and Chicago, offer services in nearly a dozen languages but access is spotty across Indiana.

“Indiana does not strike me as a state that’s been very proactive in terms of making sure that communities who speak different languages (are) really encouraged and supported in the process,” Wu said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the reason people might or might not move here but I certainly think it’s an important factor in terms of feeling like you belong in a community and that your presence here is welcomed and valued.”

Nonprofits like the Immigrant Welcome Center offer language resources where the government falls short, but can’t offer something like healthcare coverage. Other states allow immigrants to access programs like Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). 

“A lot of times immigrants, because of language barriers and documentation status… it can be really confusing,” said Kayla Bledsoe, the center’s manager of policy and resource initiatives. 

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Bledsoe noted that other states had reduced bureaucratic hurdles, such as creating a category of driving license for undocumented immigrants – a move that Indiana is considering

“This huge barrier is a lot for folks and other states do have licenses for undocumented folks,” Bledsoe said. 

An ID can be a requirement for people trying to use a food pantry or sign up for utilities, Bledsoe said.

In the last year, Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, filed a bill to remove a hurdle that would allow immigrants with documentation to access Medicaid and CHIP. Indiana is one of 15 states that has not eliminated the five-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrant children and pregnant women to receive healthcare coverage. 

“Many turn to the emergency room for care and that can be quite costly,” Bauer said. “Now it seems more important than ever… we’re certainly trying to break down any barriers that there are for accessing healthcare.”

Approximately, 4,513 to 5,961 children and 481 to 635 pregnant women in Indiana lack coverage due to this rule remaining in place.

“This is so important because there’s a federal match so it wouldn’t be a burden to the state,” Bauer said. 

Bauer said she believed that Hoosiers were welcoming to immigrants, noting the response to Afghan refugees at Camp Atterbury last year. 

“We’re a very generous state,” Bauer said. “And I think we’re welcoming but there’s certainly a lot of barriers we’re unwilling to address.”


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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.

Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.