With a few chants, one bullhorn and a lot of polite conversation, local activists are trying to change the conversation about immigration in Pennsylvania by targeting area Democratic state legislators who are leaning right on policies affecting undocumented people.
State Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, is among their latest targets.
Ten activists gathered outside his district office Thursday for a rally organized by the Thomas Merton Center and the nonprofit Casa San Jose, which connects immigrants in Allegheny County with community resources.
Democratic state representatives like Mr. DeLuca are facing increasing pressure from the left as progressives worry that they will cede to pressure created by the election of Donald Trump, who won Pennsylvania after campaigning on a platform widely viewed as anti-immigrant.
“In the political climate we’re in right now, the narrative is that immigrants are bad. And people who don’t take time to ask questions to learn what’s really going on believe the hype,” said Monica Ruiz, a community organizer with Casa San Jose. “Whoever yells the loudest gets the most attention, and we’ve got a big yeller in the White House.”
Ms. Ruiz is trying to make sure quieter voices are heard, too.
And her approach seems to be working.
Just recently, after a meeting with Ms. Ruiz and a few others, state Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, backed away from a bill that would have required schools to cooperate with Immigration Control and Enforcement officers.
Mr. Costa later said he had never intended to back that bill but signed on mistakenly as he was scrolling through numerous co-sponsorship requests. But Ms. Ruiz believes he changed his mind because of the meeting.
“He listened to us. He said, ‘Why is this so bad?’ We gave him some examples and he said, ‘You’re right. You put enough doubt in my mind that I cannot support this,’” Ms. Ruiz said.
Mr. Costa could not be reached on Thursday.
Activists hope most of the Western Pennsylvania Democrats they’re targeting are persuadable if they have the right information. They’re zeroing in on Mr. DeLuca, Harry Readshaw of Carrick, Joe Markosek of Monroeville and Bill Kortz of Dravosburg.
Mr. DeLuca was willing to listen Thursday, when the group of 10 showed up outside his office asking him to withdraw a bill that would impose fines and jeopardize businesses licenses of companies that hire undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t know what they’re upset about because this bill prevents businesses from taking advantage of immigrants that come over. These people are being exploited,” Mr. DeLuca said.
He said a lot of businesses force undocumented employees to work in unsafe conditions and threaten to report them to ICE if they complain.
“I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t believe people should be exploited, no matter who they are, and they should have the rights to complain to anybody about unfair working conditions,” he said in a telephone interview.
Opponents say the bill, which is co-sponsored by Mr. Costa, would push more immigrants into dangerous working conditions and drive down wages even more by giving employers even more of an incentive to hire immigrants off the books, making them ineligible for benefits such as workers compensation.
“We don’t want these kind of things driving people more underground where they aren’t protected,” said Ms. Ruiz, who made a similar argument to Mr. DeLuca on Thursday.
Protesters said Mr. DeLuca did not seem persuaded, although he did agree to a formal meeting to hear their ideas for making his legislation more palatable.
“He seemed very sincere, and that’s a major plus for us,” said Kenneth Love, a Presbyterian pastor who runs Alpha and Omega House Ministries.
Mr. DeLuca said he’ll listen with an open mind.
“If they can convince me this bill is dangerous for immigrants, I’ll take another look at it, but right now I can’t believe that,” he said.
Ms. Ruiz said she’ll also work on getting him and other lawmakers to oppose bills that would end so-called “sanctuary cities” by withholding funding from schools and police departments that don’t cooperate with immigration officials in the absence of arrest warrants. Sponsored by state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills, Senate Bill 10 would require police officers to honor detainer requests for anyone in their custody.
Opponents say the pair of bills would lead to increased racial profiling, put educators in untenable positions and dissuade undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes as victims or witnesses.
Mr. Reschenthaler has said the legislation would improve safety by keeping municipalities from obstructing efforts to deport dangerous undocumented immigrants. It was inspired by the death of Katie Steinle, a California woman killed in 2015 by an undocumented immigrant that San Francisco police released from jail without notifying ICE that he was in custody. The killer had previously been charged with seven felonies and had been deported five times.
Mr. DeLuca hasn’t taken a position on either bill.
Mr. Costa opposes both.
In a statement on his website, he said he is concerned about putting police officers “in a confusing and difficult position of holding a person in custody at the request of ICE without having the clear official authority of an arrest warrant.” He also said he can’t support a bill that threatens funding for law enforcement.
Activists also are concerned about similar federal legislation, including a bill strongly supported by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., but they are focusing on bills going through the Pennsylvania Legislature because they believe that’s where they can have the most influence.
“In the whole state Legislature, a lot of the focus is on these anti-immigrant bills that don’t really have any material benefit to anybody but will specifically harm immigrants,” said Gabriel McMorland, an organizer with the Thomas Merton Center. Lawmakers “should solve the real problems people are facing in their households and their towns instead of fanning the flames of racism and hatred and exploiting people’s fears by relying on racist scape-goating of immigrants.”
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