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Mr. President, What Will Be Your Civil Rights Legacy?

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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January 21, 2013

This was originally posted on The Huffington Post.


Watching President Obama take the Oath of Office four years ago was a historic moment I will never forget. I remember meeting him when he was an Illinois state senator, lobbying him when he was a U.S. Senator and meeting with him at the White House a week after the November 2012 elections. He is one of the most astute and charismatic leaders that I have met during my 30+ year career, and the fact that he, too, is African American makes me proud.

Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the President will once again take the Oath of Office, and deliver an Inaugural Address that we hope both inspires Americans and addresses substantive and pressing issues his administration must focus on in his second term. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a key leader in the civil rights movement, and the federal holiday marks an annual occasion to honor his legacy. The ACLU has worked to defend and expand upon the work of the civil rights movement. We stand ready to work with the President over the next four years to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.

On the minds of many Americans as they watch the address will be not only economic issues, but also a full range of domestic civil rights and civil liberties issues that will be deliberated on in the next four years by Congress, the Supreme Court, and state legislatures—namely gun violence prevention, immigration, and voting.

Gun Violence Prevention

Last week, President Obama announced 23 executive actions and proposed legislative action stemming from Vice President Biden’s Gun Task Force. These actions included a recommendation for federal funding of police officers at schools nationwide.

As a mother, I’m especially attuned to the need to protect children from gun violence, but scaling up the presence of police officers in schools will have unintended negative consequences. For example, in New York City, 5,000 “school safety agents” and 200 uniformed officers patrol inside public schools. Last school year, the NYPD arrested or ticketed more than 11 students each day, and more than 95 percent of arrests were of black or Latino students. Police data suggests that relatively few of these incidents involved actual criminal behavior.

As the New York City example indicates, cops in schools often work without guidelines and proper training. As a result, many school police end up dealing with relatively minor misbehaviors, like drawing on desks or outbursts in the classroom, as if they were crimes. When law enforcement is involved, infractions that ought to be handled by school administrators as disciplinary matters soon become “disorderly conduct” charges. The results can be devastating, particularly for students of color and those with disabilities, who continue to be pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems—a national trend known as the school-to-prison pipeline.


America is proudly a nation of immigrants. Federal action on immigration reform must honor this noble history and create a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million aspiring citizens, who should no longer fear separation from loved ones and the lives they have built here by contributing to our communities. Reform must also recognize that the Constitution protects immigrants. When families are faced with immigration detention or deportation of a loved one, Congress should guarantee access to counsel and make every case subject to a judge’s review. Given that U.S. citizens and immigrants who are dark-skinned – or perceived to look or sound “foreign” – have been targeted for harsh enforcement, prohibitions against racial profiling also should be incorporated into immigration reform.

Every day, thousands of immigrants who pose no flight risk or danger are being unnecessarily detained for prolonged periods of time, at an annual cost of $2 billion. Tens of thousands of unauthorized border crossers presenting no public safety threat are sent to overcrowded and substandard federal prisons every year through the expensive Operation Streamline program, which funnels taxpayer dollars into private prison company coffers. This is unnecessary, absurdly expensive, and offends our values when, for the first time in history last year, Latinos constituted more than half of those sent to federal prison. A report issued last week by the Migration Policy Institute found that the U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined – a shocking fact. Legalization of aspiring citizens with a reasonable, humane roadmap to citizenship will help restore proportionality and fairness to the immigration system after 1.5 million deportations over the last four years (including more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children in the last two).


America’s voting system needs repair. Many who voted in the November 2012 election faced barriers casting their ballots. Voters fought through suppression tactics, misinformation, and long lines—conditions which disproportionately affected people of color. Now is time for Congress to take action and implement new reforms to help remove these and other barriers to voting. We need uniform federal election standards that would help stop voter suppression efforts and eliminate voter-access problems arising from the election administration process. The need for voting reform is overwhelmingly supported by the public. According to a study by the MacArthur Foundation, nearly 90 percent of voters support the creation of national election standards.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a key civil rights law provision that must be upheld in order to protect minorities’ constitutional access to the ballot box. According to a congressional report, without Section 5, “racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.” I could not agree more.

America has made incredible strides expanding civil rights and liberties to those once denied them. President Obama knows this better than most. By getting these policies right, he will ensure a stronger, safer, and freer United States for generations to come. While the election of Barack Obama is an indication of the racial progress of which I am so proud, what will be even more important are the policies that will last far beyond his tenure in office.

Click here for a list of ACLU’s 10 ten things the Obama Administration needs to achieve in the first 100 days of its second term in order to earn the label of the “civil liberties presidency.”

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