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During a Global Pandemic and Period of Nationwide Protests for Racial Justice, Does the Biden-Sanders Platform Meet the Moment?

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are shown at the Democratic Debate
We'll keep fighting for the rights for all.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are shown at the Democratic Debate
Ronald Newman,
Former National Political Director,
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July 15, 2020

In just over 100 days, Americans will vote not just for an individual candidate to occupy the Oval Office, but for a vision of the next era of the United States. That vision will hold answers to a range of key questions: Will we continue to restrict access to abortion for the most vulnerable? Will we continue to force local law enforcement to do the job of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), regardless of the consequences? Will we continue our racist system of mass incarceration that has harmed Black and Brown communities for decades? Since March 2019, the ACLU’s Rights for All campaign has sought answers to these questions, getting presidential candidates on the record on key civil liberties issues and educating voters on their responses. 

Our view is that it’s not enough for presidential candidates to talk generally about their values and offer platitudes on the campaign trail. We need to know what their specific policies would be, and how they would institute those policies — and advance rights for all — if they secure the presidency. 

One indication we have on how Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, might perform is found in the recently released Biden-Sanders policy recommendations. While not a definitive plan, it provides us with key insights into what a Joe Biden presidency would prioritize — and the results are mixed in terms of rights for all.

Take reproductive rights for instance. Back in May 2019, an ACLU volunteer asked Biden if, as president, he would end the Hyde Amendment, a ban on abortion coverage for people enrolled in Medicaid that has denied care to people with low incomes — disproportionately women of color — for more than 40 years. Biden said “yes.”  

Biden’s pledge to our volunteer to end Hyde was a reversal from his decades-long held position. Now, the Biden-Sanders task force recommendations reaffirm that promise to repeal Hyde, but don’t offer much on how exactly he’ll do that. 

And the details matter. That’s why we’re holding Biden’s feet to the fire on this commitment, and pushing him to move the nation forward and expand access to abortion. We want Biden to clearly outline how he’ll eliminate abortion coverage restrictions and ensure that people can access abortion, no matter how much money they have or how they get their insurance. For starters, we need him to make a firm commitment to remove all abortion coverage restrictions from his first budget, and tell Congress he won’t sign bills with abortion coverage restrictions, if he is elected.  

Advancing rights for all also includes the 2.3 million individuals who are incarcerated in local, state, and federal prisons and jails nationwide. Everyday, our nation's leaders deny millions of Americans their humanity and justice, further securing the United States’ title as the biggest jailer in the world. 

So where’s Biden on ending mass incarceration? Just two months after Biden promised to end the Hyde Amendment, he also pledged to an ACLU volunteer to cut the country's prison population in half. Reducing our incarceration rate by 50 percent is a long overdue step towards liberation for millions of Americans trapped in an oppressive system. And it should very much be a priority for Joe Biden, given his role in pushing the 1994 Crime Bill, which helped create this crisis. Unfortunately, this commitment is missing from the released Biden-Sanders recommendations. 

The Biden-Sanders platform takes positive steps by recommending the end of private prisons, which create perverse incentives for increased incarceration. It discusses the elimination of cash bail, and terminating mandatory minimum sentences. But it is silent on the concrete  commitment to cut incarceration by 50 percent, and the component pieces referenced in the platform are unlikely to get us there. The nation is demanding transformational leadership in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and we need Biden to send the right signals. Without reaffirming a north star of 50 percent decarceration, one is left to wonder what will be the impact of Biden’s agenda. 

Moving the nation forward also requires a commitment to equality for our nation’s immigrants, who are ensnared in a racist system designed to target people of color. Our vision of rights for all calls for an immediate end to collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement.

In July 2019, an ACLU volunteer asked Biden where he stood on this issue, and he pledged to remove local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement, including by ending the use of detainers. In the Biden-Sanders platform, there is a call to reverse the unjust use of 287(g) and similar programs that force local law enforcement to take on the role of immigration enforcement. We need follow-through on this agenda. Especially in the face of a devastating pandemic, we need all members of our communities to trust local government officials, and that cannot happen if immigrants are constantly in fear that local government actors are immigration agents in disguise.  

The Biden-Sanders platform moves the fight to ensure rights for all an important step forward, but it doesn’t go far enough. If we want to end Hyde and all abortion coverage restrictions, get to 50 percent decarceration, and cut forced collaboration between immigration enforcement and local police, we need to keep the pressure on the Biden campaign. We must demand that the Biden campaign adopt these policy recommendations and articulate how it intends to institute them. Anything short of a clear roadmap is unacceptable. America deserves leaders who will act with urgency to make the dream of freedom and justice for all real for every person in this country.

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