Over the past week, PA House Republicans have doubled down on a string of controversial law-and-order bills, many of which failed to clear the Legislature in years past. The new bills cover topics including sanctuary cities, mandatory minimums and concealing the identity of police involved in shootings.
Many of the bills have previously attracted opposition from legal groups, Democrats and some Republicans.
On Monday, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe summoned reporters to an unusual midday press conference where he and a slew of House colleagues trumpeted a package of bills targeting what the House member described as an “illegal alien invasion” of the commonwealth.
“We’re not going to allow foreign nationals to come here and steal American jobs,” Metcalfe said at the event.
The press conference drew silent protestors as Metcalfe and other legislators laid out a string of bills intended to “shut off the faucets” that attract undocumented immigrants: jobs, welfare benefits and sanctuary city policies embraced by some municipalities and counties.
Metcalfe’s bill, HB 856, would require employers to use the “e-Verify” system to affirm an employee's citizenship status or face the revocation of business licenses. An existing bill would require proof of identity for the receipt of public benefits, while HB 826, introduced by Rep. Doyle Heffley, would make it a third-degree felony for an undocumented immigrant to possess “benefit transfer devices,” like ACCESS cards.
Heffley also promoted HB 14 – introduced in January – which targets “sanctuary campuses” by restricting funding to any higher-education institution labeling itself as such. During the press conference, speakers also referred to HB 28, which would economically sanction sanctuary cities, like Philadelphia. And a yet-to-be-introduced bill would require local law enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal authorities.
”Each bill that’s going to be discussed today is pretty much common sense,” said Michael Bekesha, an attorney with Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group.
All of the speakers emphasized that the bills sought to punish lawbreakers. But nearly all the bills have been proposed in some form in the past, with most dying over concerns about their legality.
Liz Randol, a legislative aide for the ACLU in Pennsylvania, reiterated those concerns while criticizing the anti-immigrant tenor of the press event.
“There was a lot of hyperbolic language,” she said of the press conference. “They’re picking as their primary argument that we need to be following the law, but the (legislators) don’t seem to be clear on what the law is. A lot of what they’re talking about are almost certainly constitutional violations.”
Aside from stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, Randol repeated the ACLU’s past legal concerns. The anti-sanctuary city bill would violate the Fourth Amendment by requiring local law enforcement to detain individuals without probable cause. Anti-sanctuary campus legislation could similarly force school administrators to hand over private data on their students without a warrant or other cause. She also mentioned the dangers of giving businesses access to individuals’ citizenship information through the e-Verify system.
Metcalfe and others downplayed these issues. Their renewed confidence seems to stem from the arrival of the Trump administration, a new dynamic repeatedly cited by speakers at the event.
“There’s a new sheriff in town, in the White House. We’re excited to partner with them,” Metcalfe said.
Separately, other legislators seemed emboldened to take a second run at scotched bills allegedly aimed at increasing public safety.
Rep. Martina White reintroduced HB 27 last month, which would conceal the identity of police officers involved in shootings.
A previous version of her bill passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. The new bill won a second reading yesterday and is expected to clear both chambers once again.
White aide David Foster said this time would be different.
“I believe wholeheartedly that this bill will pass overwhelmingly and bipartisanly. Our hope is that it will be veto-proof,” he said.
Rep. Todd Stevens also reintroduced HB-741 last week, which would restore the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines invalidated by a court decision in 2014.
The ACLU's state legislative director, Andy Hoover, whose organization opposed both bills, said some of the newfound confidence around the latest volley of House bills may be misplaced. He noted that the Republican-dominated legislative chambers have struggled to find common ground – the Senate twice balked at Stevens’ mandatory minimums bill last year and later passed their own watered-down version of anti-sanctuary city legislation.
“Our view is that the Senate is still skeptical,” he said.
There are questions about unity within the GOP-controlled House as well.
Some House sources said they were befuddled at the timing of the press conference, which came before the actual introduction of some of the touted bills. And although Metcalfe’s press conference was intended as a show of force, House leadership is said to be cool on much of the new legislation. Even some Reps. who ran on curbing illegal immigration – like White – were conspicuously absent from the press event.
Foster said White was focused on passing her own police bill. But he stopped short of saying whether she supported the raft of new, Trump-fueled immigration bills.
“Martina does not co-sponsor legislation until she reads the language of the bills,” he said. “A number of these bills were not available to her.”
But Randol said outsized rhetoric and differences among Republicans were not enough to assuage her organization's fears. She said that Trump’s victory had made some legislators leery of opposing populist bills during an election year.
“There are Democrats on that side of the equation as well,” she said. “I would be hesitant to say that these are just words intended to score political points.”