Conservative lawmaker sponsors Pa. "Dream Act" bill

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster and York).
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster and York).
Posted: February 19, 2013

HARRISBURG - As the rhetoric in Washington on immigration shifts from building walls to building a pathway to citizenship, so, too, has the discussion softened in some corners of the state Capitol.

In recent years, the loudest voices among Republicans have advocated tighter laws to halt what one legislator calls Pennsylvania's "illegal-alien invasion."

But now, a conservative lawmaker from Lancaster County is offering an olive branch of sorts to undocumented residents, in the form of a Pennsylvania "Dream Act" that would extend in-state college tuition rates to students who were brought to the United States as children.

The bill's chief sponsor, state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, said he decided to draft the legislation after talking with undocumented young people in his district - and seeing what happened just over the border in Maryland, where voters last fall overwhelmingly approved a similar bill.

"It's not a Republican or Democratic issue. People deserve to have that barrier taken away," said Smucker, a Republican whose district includes Lancaster city, which has the state's highest number of Hispanic residents, after Philadelphia and Allentown. "I see it as an investment and the right thing to do."

His proposal has an important supporter in the Senate: Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has signed on as a cosponsor. But it faces opposition in the House, where state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, one of the most outspoken legislators on immigration issues, is labeling it "unpatriotic" and vowing to block after it is formally introduced.

Under Smucker's bill, people who have attended high school in Pennsylvania for at least two years and graduated or earned a GED would become eligible to attend any of the 14 state universities or four "state-related" universities at in-state tuition rates - even if they are undocumented and their parents came into the country illegally.

It also would make those students, estimated by the Immigration Policy Center to number at least 30,000 in Pennsylvania, eligible for state-sponsored, low-interest student loans.

The proposal is similar to laws already in place in 12 states, including Texas, whose governor, Rick Perry, took heat in last year's Republican presidential primaries for having signed the bill in 2001.

The General Assembly in New Jersey is considering a similar bill.

Natasha Kelemen, executive director of the advocacy group the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, said the fact that Smucker's proposal had come from a GOP lawmaker was evidence that Republicans have realized the political importance of the growing immigrant community.

"Both sides are listening now," said Kelemen, whose group fought 22 bills they considered anti-immigrant in the two-year legislative session that ended in December. "It's a sign things are changing in Pennsylvania."

But Metcalfe (R., Butler) says he will fight any measure he sees as extending state benefits to illegal residents.

"It's another initiative to lead Pennsylvania into becoming a sanctuary state," Metcalfe said. "We should support those who hold the rule of law in high regard and stop foreign nationals from stealing it from them."

Right now, undocumented students pay the same tuition as out-of-state students attending state-supported colleges in Pennsylvania, nearly double the in-state rates. At Penn State, for example, tuition is $15,562 a year for an in-state freshman or sophomore; for out-of-state students, it is $27,864.

Smucker said that meeting with people like Philadelphia resident Jorge Salazar, undocumented but who wanted to finish college, helped put a face on the problem for him.

Salazar is Bolivian-born. He said his parents, government workers who fled to the United States after a regime change in 1989, ended up in a tough section of North Philadelphia.

He was a good student and graduated from the High School of Science and Engineering, but shied away from pursuing a degree at Drexel University because of the cost - and because he did not want his family "outed" as illegals.

"I lost hope," said Salazar, now 30. "I was afraid for my parents."

He now works at a Lansdale lumber yard and attends Community College of Philadelphia part time.

Salazar said he hoped that if the bill were to pass, he would be able to transfer to Villanova University and finally complete his engineering degree.

"It would have really helped out to have had this years ago," said Salazar. "When you are undocumented, you don't know if a school will be friendly or not, but if a law is in place, they can't deny you access to public education."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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