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The Uncertain Future of Pennsylvania’s Dream Act Legislation

Pennsylvania Republican State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Wednesday, January 5, 2011. Metcalfe is attempting to introduce as many as 20 anti-immigration bills, including HB 738, a virtual copycat of Arizona's far-reaching SB 1070. (Photo: Drew Angerer / The New York Times) On June 20, 2011, Pennsylvania State Rep. Tony Payton Jr. (D-Philadelphia) introduced the Pennsylvania Dream Act, HB 1695, which mirrors the failed national-level bill that would have granted undocumented youth in-tuition rates at public universities. If the bill is passed, Pennsylvania would become the 12th state, following the recent Illinois passage, to sign such legislation.

On June 20, 2011, Pennsylvania State Rep. Tony Payton Jr. (D-Philadelphia) introduced the Pennsylvania Dream Act, HB 1695, which mirrors the failed national-level bill that would have granted undocumented youth in-tuition rates at public universities. If the bill is passed, Pennsylvania would become the 12th state, following the recent Illinois passage, to sign such legislation.

Presently, in Pennsylvania, in-state tuition costs for the 2011-2012 school year are $6,240, while out-of state tuition ranges from $9,360 to $15,600, according to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Undocumented students are not eligible for these in-state tuition rates, even though many of them have been residing in the state of Pennsylvania for significant periods of time.

The Pennsylvania legislation, like other state-level bills, builds a series of strict residency guidelines that undocumented students who request in-state tuition rates must demonstrate.

These guidelines, published by Dream Activist Pennsylvania, the main pro-immigration organization in Pennsylvania sponsoring the bill, include the requirement that students must have attended a public or nonpublic secondary school in the Commonwealth for at least three years. They must also have graduated from a public or nonpublic secondary school in the Commonwealth. And, in an often overlooked provision, students or their parents must have filed Pennsylvania income taxes annually for three years while attending school to qualify.

It's important to note that while the bill mirrors national-level legislation, states do not have the power to afford citizenship; only the federal government has that legal authority. Due to this fact, the Dream Act grants undocumented youth only the ability to attend college at in-state tuition rates, meaning that legally securing a job after receiving a degree is not possible.

Despite these caveats, Representative Payton, Dream Activist Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), the state's other main pro-immigration organization, face a more vocal opposition, compared to Illinois or California, because a Republican-controlled legislature, led by State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), is leading an aggressive anti-immigration campaign.

Recently, Representative Metcalfe, who is attempting to introduce as many as 20 anti-immigration bills, including HB 738, a virtual copycat of Arizona's far-reaching SB 1070, which is currently facing intensive legal battles, held hearings on August 30 and 31, 2011, for his self-described “National Security Begins at Home” legislative package. PICC, which is led by Executive Director Brad Baldia, was allowed four different pro-immigration speakers at the rally.

The message to Metcalfe was simple, according to Baldia. “Democracy isn't for a privileged few. The reality is others recognize this and these bills damage not only our reputation but the economy as well.”

While Representative Payton testified in opposition to the package of bills by Representative Metcalfe, he has been careful to try and steer the Dream Act away from the discussions on immigration. Though it does directly affect undocumented students, Representative Payton emphasized, “The bill is related to education and not immigration.”

This conscious shift away from immigration seems tactical to avoid Representative Metcalfe's politically-charged rhetoric and focus, in Payton's own words, on “a clear and consistent message that this bill will create equal opportunities for young people in the state who contribute positively to society and want equal access to education.”

Recently, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University published a report, “The Effects of In-State Tuition for Non-Citizens,” that studied the positive effects that Dream Act laws had in other states. Most notably, the report found, “In-state tuition results in a 31% increase in enrollment in institutes of higher education.” It also found, “In-state is correlated with a 14% decrease in high school dropouts.”

Despite these positive benefits, the connections of the Dream Act to the larger anti-immigration sentiments seem unavoidable. Maria Marroquin, one of the key voices at Dream Activist Pennsylvania, emphasized how the bill is intricately woven into future efforts to ensure immigration rights, including the failures of these state-level bills to grant undocumented youth citizenship.

“When the public, or even legislators, hear the stories of undocumented youth who want to go college and who want to contribute, they are more open to the idea of a tuition equity bill. But one particular argument has been, essentially, what will [these youth] do after getting [their] degrees?”

This is why Marroquin emphasized that, while the Dream Act legislation is an important part of directly affecting the lives of undocumented youth, broader immigration reform is necessary to ensure that with educational access comes the same career opportunities others with a college education receive.

While the Dream Act bill has not moved in the Education Committee, where it must first pass before it goes to the House floor, Dream Activist Pennsylvania has organized lobbying.

Tania Chairez, is, in her own words, “undocumented and from Arizona.” She also “came to Pennsylvania to study business at UPenn and first became involved with Dream Activist PA back in March at their Youth Empowerment Summit (YES) training.” She sketched the lobbying efforts of Dream Activist Pennsylvania: “Our approach has been to have in-district meetings with some of the representatives, presenting them with our argument and asking for their support. Another cosponsor just signed on to the list as a direct result from these meetings and we're hoping that by gaining more cosponsors we will be able to draw more attention and acquire more support from representatives that are still on the fence about the issue.”

What has been the biggest impetus in getting HB 1695 to advance money more quickly? According to Chairez, it is the misconception that the bill “will cost taxpayer's money to implement, or that they shouldn't be paying for the education of an undocumented student; or even the idea that undocumented people only pay sales tax and property tax and not income tax.”

As all pro-immigration supporters have been careful to articulate, these students and their families contribute personal, property and sales taxes. As the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Council showed, the total estimated tax revenue in 2010 from personal income taxes amounted to $1,214,111,519 nationwide and $34,851,733 in Pennsylvania. When including all forms of taxation, these undocumented immigrants contribute $134,967,366 in Pennsylvania.

Marroquin also made it clear that the personal impact of this bill must be stressed. She explained, “I graduated from high school in 2004. I went onto community college where I was charged as an international student and it took me 5 long years to finish my Associate's Degree. I paid for my college tuition out of my own pocket, with no financial help. And that is all that we're asking for: the opportunity to pay the same tuition rates as our peers.”

While Marroquin was able to afford to pay for college, many undocumented youth simply do not have the financial resources that she did.

One of these students, Cesar, a currently undocumented college student who will be directly affected by the legislation, spoke during the bill's introduction on June 20, 2011, in Philadelphia. Cesar currently attends Montgomery Community College, where he must pay 900 dollars per class, which is three times the amount of the in-state tuition rate.

He summed up the difficulties of maintaining enrollment in college, saying, “I only take two classes per semester and even then I don't know if I'll have enough to pay for next semester.”

This struggle is what has forced Marroquin to ask, “Do we want these students to drop out of high school because they see no future? Or do we want to give them a way in by offering them the same rates as their peers and, as a result, have an educated workforce?”

Given the filibuster of the Dream Act in the United States Senate, it is clear partisan anti-immigration values matter more than considering fair and equal access to education. Representative Metcalfe's anti-immigration push, where he has called any attempts to make concessions to undocumented immigrations “treasonous,” indicates that a bitter battle over the Dream Act is just beginning in Pennsylvania.

But in continuing to affirm the economic value of this bill, the negative economic impacts of Arizona's SB 1070 and, in Baldia's words, the simple message that “this isn't how you treat other people,” Dream Activist Pennsylvania and PICC remain committed to lobbying for the bill despite its uncertain future.

They also hope in the upcoming weeks to get other people involved. “Just talk about [the Dream Act] with your friends, family, and urge them to support it by signing a petition,” Marroquin suggested. “You can also contact your state representatives and urge them to support and co-sponsor it.”

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