Lancaster Republican devises 'Dream Act' plan for Pa.

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 9:12 p.m.

HARRISBURG — As the rhetoric in Washington on immigration shifts from building walls to building a pathway to citizenship, the discussion has 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 the city of Lancaster, which has the state's third-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 County, has signed on as a co-sponsor. But it faces opposition in the House, where state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, is labeling it “unpatriotic” and vowing to block it once 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 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 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.

Said Natasha Kelemen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition: “Both sides are listening now. It's a sign things are changing in Pennsylvania.”

Undocumented students pay the same tuition as out-of-state students attending state-supported colleges in Pennsylvania, nearly double the in-state rates.

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