Senator: Help kids without papers
Smucker's bill would allow children of undocumented workers to pay in-state rates to afford state universities. He faces strong opposition. By Karen Shuey, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Donaldo Perez, who came with his family to Lancaster County from Guatemala seven years ago, has set a goal: to have his graphic designs seen by millions of people.
There's one thing standing in his way. The 23-year-old high school graduate is an undocumented immigrant, and therefore is ineligible for the tuition assistance that could help him realize his dream.
But Lloyd Smucker wants to change that.
The West Lampeter Republican said he believes that hard work should lead to opportunity -- no matter where you come from.
"We should help children of all backgrounds achieve at high levels and graduate so they can compete in the workforce and give back to the country," the state senator said.
That's the idea behind the lawmaker's latest legislation.
Smucker announced early last week the creation of a bill that would allow students who were brought to the United States illegally as children to be eligible for in-state tuition to the state universities.
Students who are not legal residents of the state usually face having to pay more expensive out-of-state or international rates, and many public schools will not accept undocumented students.
Under the proposal, individuals must offer proof of having attended at least two years of high school and must meet certain requirements that have not yet been released.
The bill does not offer an option for permanent residency.
Without a pathway to higher education, Smucker says it puts undocumented students, as well as the state, at a disadvantage when they try to become income-earning, taxpaying adults.
"The state represents opportunity for people from many different places, and it seems like the right thing to do for those who are working and studying to make their way," he said.
Although it may seem like an unlikely issue for a Republican to champion, Smucker said the bill has the potential to benefit the state financially.
"This bill helps us expand the pool of skilled workers and prospective job creators," he said.
Despite the possible economic payoff, the lawmaker said his main motivation for crafting the bill was based on stories he heard from those who would benefit from it.
Smucker met with undocumented students in his legislative district -- which includes Lancaster County south of Manheim Township and parts of eastern York County -- to get their perspective.
The senator said he was moved after talking with the students who have good grades, but couldn't go to college -- or even apply -- because it would compromise their residence.
As superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, that's a situation Pedro Rivera comes across frequently.
"These kids are very bright and capable, and will definitely help contribute to our country in the future," he said.
The grandson of a Puerto Rican grandmother with only a fourth-grade education, Rivera said legislators and residents should consider the grants as an investment.
Rivera said "the contributions a working professional will be able to make to our society [are] going to far outweigh what we pay to get them to that point."
American high schools graduate an estimated 65,000 undocumented students every year, according to the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service. About a dozen other states have laws or policies that are similar to Smucker's legislation.
For students from families of modest means, the in-state tuition discount is crucial. At Penn State, in-state tuition is $15,562 a year, while out-of-state and international students must pay $27,864.
The in-state discount would apply at the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education, as well as the four state-related schools -- Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln -- partially funded by appropriations.
Rivera said he hopes Smucker will be able to find some support from his fellow lawmakers.
"Every year we decide not to address this issue, we lose a generation of promise -- a generation of talented workers," he said. "We need to force the conversation forward."
In the Republican-controlled Senate, it may be hard to find support.
Even other members of the Lancaster County delegation are hesitant or refuse to offer support.
State Sen. Mike Brubaker opposes the bill.
"Pennsylvania students who are legal citizens of the United States already compete for limited financial aid to attend state-owned universities; offering a taxpayer-funded benefit to persons without documentation is not something I would support," the Warwick-area lawmaker said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Mike Folmer is keeping quiet on the topic.
Fred Sembach, Folmer's chief of staff, said that since the bill is likely to be reviewed by the Senate Education Committee -- chaired by the Lebanon County legislator -- he will wait until the details are ironed out.
"He and Sen. Smucker usually look at issues the same way, but he wants to remain impartial," Sembach said.
Natasha Kelemen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, has promised that she will lobby the committee for the passage of the bill.
She said Smucker's legislation recognizes that these young people represent an asset to the state to be cultivated, not a threat.
"This law will finally allow young people who have lived in this country and grown up here a chance to fulfill their potential," she said.
If the bill does make it onto the Senate floor, Butler County Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said he will do everything he can to stop the "nonsensical" legislation from getting passed.
"I've seen this from liberal Democrats, but it's surprising that a Republican who represents such a conservative area would introduce this bill," he said.
Metcalfe, the founder of State Legislators for Legal Immigration, said the bill would be a step in the wrong direction for Pennsylvania.
"The idea is not to be a sanctuary state, and Smucker's bill would do exactly that," he said.n