Undocumented immigrants live, work, and go to school in Pennsylvania. They live just like those born in America. They pay taxes and volunteer in their communities. Studies even show that they commit fewer crimes than their native-born neighbors.
But there are everyday things that they can’t do legally, and they don’t have access to some of the benefits Pennsylvania residents might take for granted. For example, undocumented immigrants can’t acquire drivers’ licenses in the commonwealth. And for those that need a car for work or to attend school, that means they are breaking the law, and risking deportation almost every day.
A group of pro-immigrant advocates is trying to change that. The Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizen Coalition, along with Pittsburgh groups Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, Casa San Jose, and many others from across Pennsylvania are advocating for immigration-related bills in Harrisburg.
Near the top of their list is a bill allowing non-citizen Pennsylvanians who attend and graduate from Pennsylvania high schools to access in-state college tuition. Sundrop Carter of PICC says, currently, many undocumented immigrants, even DACA-recipients, do not qualify for in-state tuition to Pennsylvania state-run universities, despite the fact many have lived here most of their lives.
Carter says that immigrant students that have attended at least two years at a Pennsylvania high school and get their GED or graduate should be eligible for in-state tuition benefits.
“Drivers’ licenses, tuition equity, these are common sense things,” says Carter. “We want Pennsylvanians who graduate from high school to go to college here.”
Carter also wants a bill to authorize limited-scope drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. She says the state legislature can authorize non-Real ID compliant drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Twelve states and Washington, D.C. already offer licenses to undocumented immigrants, and Carter says Pennsylvania should join them. PICC and the immigrant groups are also advocating for an increase in public education funding, for public schools to institute welcoming policies towards immigrants and refugees, codifying exactly how state police interact with federal immigration officials, and for the family detention center in Berks County to be shut down.
“Drivers’ licenses, tuition equity, these are common sense things. We want Pennsylvanians who graduate from high school to go to college here.”
Carter says the ultimate goal is to get these initiatives passed but understands the difficulty the bills have in the Republican-controlled chambers. She says President Donald Trump has intensified anti-immigrant rhetoric, making it harder for legislators to even discuss immigration-related bills. Her hope is to see a little bit of progress this session, and maybe gain momentum for the future.
“Most representatives don’t really feel the pressure to represent their growing communities of color and Latinx community,” says Carter. “But we think we will see some movement on these bills.”
For example, state Rep. Angel Cruz (D-Philadelphia) introduced a bill to provide drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants in January, but it has only received eight co-sponsors.
Carter is hopeful that the new wave of Democrats that were elected last year could change things. “A lot of the new Democrats are trying to push forward a progressive agenda, and that includes immigration.”
State Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville) is one of those new progressive Democrats, and she says she backs the push to authorize drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Innamorato’s support marks a changing political landscape, even if slight. Her predecessor, former state Rep. Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights), regularly sponsored anti-immigrant bills. Innamorato says licenses for undocumented immigrants would help more people participate in the commonwealth’s economy, and other states have ensured the licenses “don’t confer citizenship nor could these licenses be used to vote or apply for public benefits.”
"Undocumented immigrants and refugees live, work, and pay taxes in our communities,” says Innamorato. “I support the common-sense legislation that enables these residents to live their daily lives: drive, send their children to school, go to work. Our neighbors deserve to feel safe and empowered, no matter their immigration status.”
World Refugee Day, June 21, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Market Square, Downtown. Free. ajapopittsburgh.org