Our state's official title is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A commonwealth, as the name suggests, is “a political community founded for the public good”. Part of ensuring that public good written into the PA State Constitution is a promise that, “the General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth”.
In April 2017, Lehigh County State Rep Peter Schweyer (D-22) introduced HB 1042 in the PA Legislature. (The bill was co-sponsored by Berks County Rep Mark Rozzi (D-126) among others.) As is the common refrain, HB 1042 now sits wallowing in the Education Committee. Its full title is the Pennsylvania Higher Education Tuition Fairness Act. The essence of the bill is the idea that current federal and state policy is prohibitory (and one can argue discriminatory) against undocumented immigrants when it comes to access to higher education.
Wait-these people have rights? In case one was wondering, there is court precedent to for undocumented immigrants to have the right to a Free and Appropriated Public Education under Plyer v. Doe (1982). The problem is this case didn’t address tertiary education, which is one of the reasons Rep Schweyer introduced HB 1042. The following is taken directly from Schweyer’s memorandum on the bill:
Consequently, it is my belief that the competitive nature of our 21st Century economy makes it imperative that all students with the intellectual ability, desire, and motivation have access to higher education and financial aid programs. The Commonwealth’s economy and its ability to compete, both nationally and globally, is dependent on a stable and educated workforce, which is more achievable if all high school students have access to affordable higher education.
What is the thinking behind HB 1042? According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only 61% of undocumented students who arrive before age 14 enroll in institutions of higher education. But this shouldn’t be surprising given the legal, financial, and social barriers placed in their way. In fact, many of these kids aren’t even aware that they’re undocumented until they go to apply for financial aid or for in-state tuition. HB1042 seeks to remove some of those barriers, in particular the financial ones.
Who could argue the benefits of an educated populace? Twenty other states including PA neighbors like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland have already recognized this by providing some in-state tuition equity to undocumented students. HB 1042 would provide in-state tuition rates and access to the in-state financial aid system with the following requirements. The applicant must have:
PA Code 22 provides guidelines for establishing residency, but citizenship isn’t a requirement under the code for financial aid. HB 1042 would still be in line with the current school code.
Being able to afford tuition isn’t the only problem these students face. They continue to struggle with employment and accessing healthcare. And now that Trump has threatened DACA, undocumented individuals have the overriding concern about a path to citizenship. One suggestion is for campuses to be designated as “safe harbors”, where kids don’t have to fear deportation.
But education alone isn’t enough. In order to be full participants in the system these individuals need to have access to employment. There are approximately 5,900 DACA recipients in PA. Immigrants in general are already an integral part of Pennsylvania’s workforce. According to a 2015 study immigrants made up 7.6% of the labor force in PA. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also points out that with an aging U.S. population, immigrants are key to stabilizing Medicare and Social Security.
It’s not rocket science, and it’s not just about dollars and cents. It’s about giving everyone a seat at the table. A more educated populace with ample employment opportunities will have a positive impact overall on the fiscal health of a community, allowing everyone regardless of background to contribute and share in the “common wealth”.
posted by Amy Levengood
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