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

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

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

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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")

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