Friday, December 09, 2011

Anti-immigrant sentiment overrides legislators’ concern for Pennsylvanians

When the House State Government Committee passed Senate Bill 9 on Tuesday, it also taught a civics lesson on how a legislative body should not make decisions.  In rejecting 10 out of 11 proposed amendments, some legislators on the committee seemed to be more interested in demonstrating animus towards immigrants than in carefully considering the welfare of the people of Pennsylvania.

If SB 9 becomes law, it would require applicants for public benefits to verify their citizenship or immigration authorization with identification before they could receive their benefits. We oppose SB 9 because it’s based on a belief—derived more from prejudice than fact—that there are large numbers of undocumented immigrants illegally collecting public money.  There isn’t reliable evidence to support this claim. Instead of solving a real problem, SB 9 promotes bias and discrimination.

In quick succession, legislators shot down 10 amendments that would have measured and mitigated the harm that SB 9 causes. One amendment would have expanded the forms of ID that applicants could use to prove their eligibility. Another would have exempted persons older than 50 years of age from SB 9’s requirements, because so many senior citizens lack the kinds of ID that can establish citizenship. The committee even rejected an amendment that would have required agencies to study the impact of SB 9 on their programs.  SB 9’s supporters weren’t even willing to learn about the actual consequences of their bill.

The only amendment to pass was the one the chairman offered himself.  It allows applicants without the required ID to fill out an affidavit promising that they can lawfully receive benefits.  They are then checked against the SAVE database, a federal program that is intended to check citizenship and immigration status.  We welcome this change, but the amendment contained two other provisions that make SB 9 substantially more harmful.  SB 9 now makes it a third degree felony for an undocumented person to possess a benefits card, despite the fact that in some situations federal law permits undocumented immigrants to have a benefits card, and requires the state to post identifying information about people unlawfully receiving benefits on a public website.  Punishments should fit the crime, and that is hardly the case here.

It’s not too late to stop SB 9.  It is still possible to defeat it when it reaches a vote before the full House of Representatives.  Between now and then, we need to make sure our legislators know what their priorities should be.  Instead of political posturing, we need them to thoughtfully consider how to protect the rights and needs of Pennsylvanians.

--Nate Vogel, Frankel Legislative Fellow



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