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United Way of Lancaster County


Immigrant, refugee advocates call for an Office of New Pennsylvanians

Rwamucyo Karekezi of Church World Service, left, and Daniel Alvalle of CASA. Background: The Lancaster Welcoming Mural at the corner of West King and North Charlotte streets, designed by artist Claudia Rojas. (Photos: OUL)

Pennsylvania needs to take a more active role in welcoming and supporting its immigrant and refugee populations, said state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El.

State Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El

“Without immigrants and refugees, Pennsylvania doesn’t grow,” the first-term Democrat told City Council Tuesday evening.

In October, Smith-Wade-El and state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, re-introduced legislation to create an Office of New Pennsylvanians within the state Department of Community & Economic Development. On Tuesday, City Council passed a resolution in support of the proposal.

Serving as a single point of contact for immigrants and their advocates, the office would develop policies to attract immigrants to Pennsylvania and help them build successful lives, and would work to implement them with other agencies and departments across state government.

The office would be supported by an advisory committee, made up of representatives of state departments, immigrant advocacy groups and organizations representing business, healthcare, law and education.

Hohenstein and then state Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, previously introduced the bill in 2021.

More than 900,000 people in Pennsylvania are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census, accounting for 7.3% of the state population. Their numbers have increased 75% since 2000, far faster than the state’s sluggish growth overall.

In Lancaster County, immigrants account for 5.5% of residents, or more than 30,000 people. As of 2018, they accounted for about $500 million in spending power, according to federal data analyzed by the American Immigration Council.

Advocates say new arrivals face hurdles that a coordinated state approach could ameliorate, such as navigating the immigration system, accessing social services and converting degrees and professional certifications earned overseas into qualifications recognized domestically.

Representatives of resettlement nonprofit Church World Service and immigrant advocacy nonprofit CASA told City Council they strongly support creating the Office of New Pennsylvanians.

“This is an amazing opportunity for Pennsylvania,” said Daniel Alvalle, CASA’s Pennsylvania director.

“Our most fundamental belief is that diversity of background, experience and thought is our community’s greatest strength,” said Rwamucyo Karekezi, a Church World Service community organizer and a Congolese native.

Lancaster is a certified Welcoming City and its record of successfully resettling individuals from all over the world is a point of civic pride. As Tuesday’s resolution notes, its foreign-born residents have contributed significantly to Lancaster’s “vibrancy, prosperity and civic life.”

Smith-Wade-El, who served as City Council president before his election to the state House, said Lancaster has a claim to being the Pennsylvania city that has “most distinguished itself” in welcoming refugees.

City Council currently has two foreign-born members: Lochard Calixte, a Haitian American; and Ahmed Ahmed, who is council’s first refugee member in recent memory. He was born in a refugee camp in Cameroon after his family fled Chad.

It was Ahmed who introduced City Council’s resolution. It was a great opportunity to show Lancaster’s support for immigrants and refugees and align the city’s efforts with those of other communities across the region, he said.

Immigrants “are vital to the continuing prosperity of our communities,” Church World Service spokeswoman Rachel Helwig told One United Lancaster. “We urge the Pennsylvania legislature to champion this bill.”