Nearing the end of its first year, the Pa. Legislative Latino Caucus sees more work ahead
As the Pennsylvania House prepares for its final session days of the 2023 calendar year, the Latino Caucus closes out its first year with many of the bills put forth by its members still awaiting action.
But even though many of its priorities haven’t moved forward so far during this legislative session, Rep. Manuel Guzman (D-Reading), vice chair of the Latino Caucus, said they’re in it for the long haul.
“One of the models we looked at when we formed this caucus was the Pennsylvania Black Caucus and what they’ve been able to do to shape and reshape legislation that has been beneficial to the Black and brown communities,” he said, adding that Latinos and Hispanics across the commonwealth make up about 7.5% of the voting population, roughly 1.2 million people across all 67 counties.
Guzman’s district includes the city of Reading, which he said has the highest concentration of Latinos across any of the cities in the commonwealth. “For me, personally, it’s about how do we raise our issues, not just at the state level, local level, and of course, at the federal level,” he told the Capital-Star. “And I want to emphasize that Latino issues are everyday American Commonwealth residents’ issues.”
Those issues include funding schools, raising the minimum wage, and sending kids to schools “that don’t have crumbling infrastructure,” Guzman said. “We want to drive on roads that don’t have potholes the size of pools. Latino issues are by and large, Pennsylvania issues. And for me, it’s just about making sure that folks in the halls of Harrisburg understand that our communities are not that much different. Besides the fact that we have a Spanish-sounding last name, or come from a Spanish household.”
Caucus chairman Rep. Danilo Burgos (D-Philadelphia) said during the pandemic, it was largely Latino workers — including undocumented workers — who kept things running at many businesses and farms.
“Latinos are viewed as essential workers when it’s convenient to the stores when it’s convenient to corporations and big business, but they don’t look at them as regular citizens when they should be,” Burgos said.
Many jobs at farms and processing plants, for example, are difficult to fill, he added. “We don’t have a labor force that wants to be in those jobs. So it is the best-kept secret in the Commonwealth that we hire a lot of undocumented people but we don’t want to acknowledge their existence. And that’s part of why we formed our caucus, to fight for those that cannot defend themselves.”
In addition to Burgos and Guzman, the caucus includes Reps. Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz (D-Berks), Heather Boyd (D-Delaware), Jose Giral (D-Phliadelphia), Liz Hanbidge (D-Montgomery), Carol Kazeem (D-Delaware), Lindsay Powell (D-Allegheny), and Ben Sanchez (D-Montgomery).
Immigration issues inform a lot of the bills that Latino Caucus members support, in ways that address the treatment of immigrants who are already here and likely contributing to the state’s economy.
For instance: Children who come to the U.S. as part of an undocumented family, and who graduate from a Pennsylvania school and want to go to a college in the state system of higher education have to pay out-of-state tuition rates. That’s one of the issues Guzman wants to see addressed.
“My father came to this country at the age of 19, and it was a Republican– Ronald Reagan –that gave him and millions of other people like him the opportunity to come out of the shadows and become an American citizen,” Guzman said. “These are not far-fetched, far-left-wing ideals, right. These are Republican ideals that not too long ago, Republicans held true to.”
He views it as a competitive issue for Pennsylvania as well; in order to keep up with neighboring states like New York and New Jersey who he says are more welcoming to immigrants, Pennsylvania has to give the Latino community an opportunity to fully engage in the Democratic process, Guzman noted.
Burgos introduced legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses or learner’s permits using a method other than a Social Security number, which he views as a safety issue not just for undocumented immigrants but for other drivers on the commonwealth’s roads as well. That bill was referred to the House Transportation Committee in March.
Other legislation proposed by members of the caucus include Rep. Cepeda-Freytiz’s bill to amend teacher qualification requirements to allow immigrants with valid visas or employment authorization to teach in the commonwealth’s public schools, which would help address the state’s teacher shortage. That legislation was referred to the Senate Education Committee in June.
Rep. Giral re-introduced legislation that would prohibit Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies from spending resources on immigration enforcement efforts, and prohibit public or private colleges from enacting or enforcing discriminatory immigration enforcement policies. Under House Bill 1548, the state Attorney General would develop policies for schools and law enforcement agencies to implement and follow. That bill was referred to the House Judiciary committee in June.
Guzman said the caucus will continue to push for issues of importance to the Hispanic and Latino communities, both immigration-related and on other matters as well.
“For us, it’s about leaving a stamp — both Rep. Burgos and I recognize we’re not going to be here forever,” he said. “So we’re hopeful that those who come after us don’t have the same obstacles that we’re running into now. Our job is to make that transition easier for those that come after us to be able to build where we drop the ball and hopefully, move the ball out further.”