Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Not an alien position for Smucker
You might recall how Republican attacks on illegal immigration were a feature of the political landscape in September 2011.
Mitt Romney was scoring points by criticizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support of in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants. "That kind of magnet draws people into the country," Romney said at a debate. "We have to turn off the magnet."
Meanwhile that month, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House were hot to make English the state's official language.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), in fact, began a hearing with a moment of silence for the late owner of a Philly cheesesteak shop known for its sign: "This is America: When ordering, please speak English."
Into that heated environment stepped state Sen. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County, a Republican with a contrary view and, more importantly, the courage to express it.
Smucker decided to make a brief but pointed speech on the Senate floor to challenge fellow Republicans. In it he extolled the economic and civic contributions of Latinos and embraced the diversity of languages spoken in his district of urban and rural communities.
"It is hard to believe," the first-term senator said, "that some people see this (diversity) as somehow threatening our economy or our fiscal health."
Smucker concluded by quoting former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "Those who seek to erase other languages and cultural influences from our lives, who seek to disrupt the growing ethnic communities in our midst, do nothing to improve our society or brighten our prospects."
Smucker's against-the-tide speech was newsworthy enough to make a small splash in statewide media. He also found himself defending his remarks on a Philadelphia talk radio program.
More than a year later, the episode offers an illuminating foreshadowing of Smucker's new role as the prime sponsor of legislation to do in Pennsylvania what Romney spoke against in general: allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
The idea remains controversial in GOP circles. State Sen. Mike Brubaker, also of Lancaster County, says he's a "no" vote, and Metcalfe calls the idea a step to making Pennsylvania a sanctuary state.
But Smucker, a mild-mannered, fiscally conservative, former drywall contractor, is fine with being a maverick on immigration and comfortable with the risk. "I am," he said. "I sure am. It shouldn't be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue."
Smucker contacted the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, an advocacy group, about sponsoring a bill. "We were delighted," said director Natasha Kelemen. "That support came from a Republican is surprising but very welcome."
Adriana Arvizo of Juntos, a Philadelphia-based Latino immigrant group, said, "We believe that immigration reform is not something that belongs to any specific political party. Therefore, we applaud (Smucker's) intentions."
Last session, a similar bill by a Democratic House member went nowhere. But this session could be different both because of a thaw in anti-illegal immigrant sentiment in the GOP at the national level and because a Republican is leading the charge in Harrisburg.
Another sign of progress: Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) is co-sponsoring Smucker's bill. Pileggi even tweeted his support, saying: "Keeping motivated students in PA makes good economic sense." Other Republicans have signed on, as well.
"This is a game-changing moment," said Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania's legislative director.
Smucker won't go that far, calling passage a "pretty heavy" lift. "All of last session there was discussion around other (anti-immigrant) bills," he said. "You see what we're up against."
But he's undeterred.
"This is a priority of mine for this session," Smucker said. "There's no question in my mind this is the right thing to do."