Pa. PUC member alerts utilities for immigrant travel-ban fallout

A Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission member on Monday encouraged the state’s utilities to “recognize and attend to” families who may be adversely affected by new federal immigration policies, venturing into a sensitive political area he said had caused some "angst" for other members of the PUC.

Andrew G. Place, the commission’s vice chairman, sent a letter to the state’s public utilities Monday to raise awareness about potential problems among immigrant customers and “to provide assistance, whenever possible, to minimize the risks to essential utility services."

Place, a British immigrant who grew up in the United States, was appointed to the PUC in 2015 by Gov. Wolf. He said his message was intended primarily to alert utilities, as well as the PUC’s Bureau of Consumer Services, that immigrant families may be undergoing stress from new federal policies that could affect their ability to pay their utility bills.

He said he asked the PUC last week to make a statement during its public meeting urging utilities to be aware that the federal government’s proposed travel ban might impact immigrant families, which may not be immediately clear because of language issues or cultural barriers or fear.

“I argue that we have a shared responsibility to ensure that members of our communities are able to remain in their homes and maintain utility services during this time that they are unable, by this unforeseeable change in circumstance, to lawfully re-enter or reside in the United States or during the time that their families must manage without them,” Place said in his statement.

But he said there was “near unanimous” agreement among the four other commission members that “speaking it from the bench could be seen as a political statement rather than strictly a regulatory matter.” 

There is no evidence any families have lost utility service since the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries was announced, Place said. If such families ran into financial difficulties, he noted, they might not be aware that utilities have programs to provide relief for customers in emergencies, including assistance for low-income customers.

“If there is an issue, it may only be dozens of families,” he said. “It’s going to be dispersed, isolated. It’s going to creep up over time. It may be months before people start addressing issues like their utility bills.”The commission is collegial by tradition and bipartisan by law — no party can hold more than three of the five seats.

Place, who is among the Democratic majority, said he withdrew the issue as a topic to be considered by the entire board because it “was causing a huge amount of angst.”

He emphasized that his message to the state's public utilities reflected the voice of a single commissioner, not the entire commission.

“This is a difficult one because it’s a highly charged situation, but I hope that my statement was nuanced and did not focus on the political, and really narrowed it down on the specific issue,” Place said. “It’s no different than if there was a storm, or people deployed to a conflict, anything that has unusual impacts.”