In 2011, Pennsylvania housed 756,410 immigrants, which, as the American Immigration Council puts it, is nearly the size of the population of Columbus, Ohio. As of 2013, 12.2 percent of the population in Philadelphia consists of foreign-born persons. Some of which breathed a sign of relief when President Obama announced in November an executive action providing new protections against deportation for immigrants.
An estimated 55,000 immigrants in Pennsylvania are eligible for Obama’s new program, according to the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). It’s just a matter of accessing that population.
Over the last four months, PICC and its coalition of grassroots service providers — legal service providers, faith-based organizations and more — have reached out to over 3,000 immigrants, informing them about who is eligible and how the application process will work once it opens.
“The executive actions would provide temporary relief from deportation as well as work authorization, including a social security number and ability to get a driver’s license for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians,” said PICC Executive Director Natasha Kelemen.
She said there’s often misunderstanding about immigrant eligibility for benefits and the impact undocumented immigrants have on our economy.
“I think a lot of people think undocumented immigrants qualify for public benefits, when in fact they don’t,” she said, adding that there are no cases in Pennsylvania of an undocumented immigrant illegally obtaining public benefits.
They also pay taxes.
“In 2010, undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania contributed $135 million in sales and state taxes,” she said. Since they don’t have social security numbers, undocumented immigrants still have ITIN numbers with which they pay taxes.
PICC and their partners may have been able to reach over 3,000 immigrants across the state, but it’s not enough. The biggest challenge, in a state the size of Pennsylvania, is having a unified front. Immigrants and refugees from all over Pennsylvania, as well as advocates and allied organizations, convened in Harrisburg March 22-23 in order to take local movements and consolidate them into a single force.
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Groups from one part of the state had the opportunity to network with and learn from groups from other parts of the state. For example, Kelemen said, groups from Pittsburgh were able to learn about the work that’s been done in Philly to pass executive orders limiting local law enforcement collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“There are a lot of exciting things going on in particular localities in PA that groups around the state could all learn from,” Kelemen said. “We need to create a more coordinated network.”
This wasn’t your traditional conference. There were overviews of the political landscape and what state legislature looks like, how to build electoral power and networking caucuses.
”We’re trying to create an agenda that allows for networking, movement building and skills-building within specific areas,” Keleman said.
Keynote speakers included John Hanger, Governor Wolf’s Secretary of Planning & Policy, and Patience Lehrman, a leader from Philadelphia’s immigrant community and recipient of the President’s Citizen’s Medal.
The convening preceded PICC’s Immigrant Advocacy Day in April, which is also held in Harrisburg. It’s a day dedicated to appointments with legislators to discuss bills pertaining to immigrant rights. This year, PICC will be looking to talk about Senate Bill 9, a piece of legislation that makes having a government-issued ID a requirement for accessing benefits.
“That’s actually going to be potentially detrimental to a community that’s much broader than the immigrant community,” Kelemen said. “Because many US citizens don’t have IDs — especially elderly, low-income and minority communities.”
On the statewide level, PICC is also hoping to promote a bill giving all state residents access to driver’s licenses; a bill allowing undocumented youth the right to pay in-state tuition at public universities; and a bill that would create a state Office of Immigration Affairs, to champion immigrant integration through citizenship programs and ESL classes.
Image via PICC