Civil Rights

The right time to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell is now (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand)

Since 1994, almost 13,000 gay servicemen and women have been discharged from the military based not on their performance but on their sexual orientation. In 2009 alone, we've had more than 400 of our brave men and women leave the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell. This is simply unacceptable. It is time to repeal this outdated and immoral policy once and for all and end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly and honestly in our armed forces.

To that end, I've secured the commitment from Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the Armed Services Committee, to hold the first hearing on the policy since it began 16 years ago. Chairman Levin expects to hold the hearing soon and it's my hope that it will be instrumental in demonstrating the level of support that exists for repeal not only throughout the country -- where polls consistently indicate that solid majorities oppose the policy -- but within the military itself.


It’s time for OFCCP to reflect the 21st century (Rep. Rosa DeLauro)

Earlier this week, I, Congressman Pete Stark, and 24 of our colleagues signed a letter urging Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to modernize the affirmative action goals set by the Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in 1980 to reflect the current realities of female participation in the construction industry.

This issue is a no-brainer – OFCCP standards, which were designed to end the long-standing exclusion of women in construction, should reflect the world as it is today, not as it was decades ago.

For example, the OFCCP minimum standard for total number of work hours performed by women on a given federal contract progressed from 3.1% to 5% to 6.9% over a period of three years when the program was first established. But after this very positive start, this 6.9% participation rate – based on data from the 1970 census – has not been further expanded in over 30 years.


Give Native American Veterans the benefits they deserve (Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick)

As the daughter and niece of soldiers, I have always believed that we have a sacred duty to respect and honor the service of our Veterans. Our fighting men and women sacrifice so much to keep this country safe, and we must do all we can to make sure they receive the treatment they have earned when they come home.

This is especially true for Native Americans Veterans, who too often face serious obstacles in using their benefits. I represent 11 different tribes in Greater Arizona, and I am determined to ensure that we keep our promises to those in Indian Country who have fought and died for our Nation.

On September 10, I introduced the Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act of 2009, H.R. 3553, to help achieve that goal.  The bill will correct an oversight in the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) that has caused disabled Veterans, their families and their survivors to be denied housing assistance because they are receiving Veterans’ disability and survivor benefits.


An AFL-CIO as diverse as workers

A. Philip Randolph spoke up for civil rights at an AFL-CIO convention during a different era. It was a time when women who got pregnant were fired the moment they showed; one in which America practiced apartheid at water fountains, on buses, and in schools; one that hid people with physical and mental disabilities away in institutions; one where no openly gay people lived.

It was 1959 when Randolph spoke at the AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco. As founder and leader of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph served on the AFL-CIO executive council.

Normally dignified and composed, Randolph let loose a fiery speech seeking from the gathering a commitment to greater inclusion. Collective bargaining had given the members of his union – railroad porters, maids and cooks – the power they needed to secure middle class wages from the Pullman Company. Randolph wanted the AFL-CIO to help end racial injustice and provide that access to more minorities.


Rep. Blumenauer's DOMA shift

On July 12, 1996, I cast the worst vote of my political career. Having served in public office since 1973, that says something. While I've made other mistakes, this was different: it was a deliberate vote that I knew to be poor public policy and was against my values. I've been a strong champion of civil rights and protections based on sexual orientation since I chaired the first legislative hearing on anti-discrimination legislation in 1973. Even worse, this vote was cast after careful consideration.

Having given it much thought, I was convinced that by voting for this one federal statute against the recognition of same-sex marriage, it would somehow take the steam out of the Newt Gingrich-Tom Delay Congress, which was using the homophobic right-wing agenda to mobilize their base at the expense of millions of gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual Americans. My hope was to simply move on and get to more pressing business at hand, including smaller steps for equality based on sexual orientation, like legislation against employment discrimination.


E-Verify Hurts the Workforce It’s Meant to Protect

This week, the administration enacted a policy which makes E-Verify mandatory for all government contractors and subcontractors, including those who receive stimulus funds.  The policy applies not just to new hires, but to current employees as well, even those who have put in years of service.  This policy along with other E-Verify agreements already in place in private industry puts American workers and legally authorized workers at risk of losing their jobs through no fault of their own.  In the bleakest economic climate in a generation, the administration’s E-Verify policy has given workers yet another hurdle to clear:  a flawed, bureaucratic system.

E-Verify has been plagued with problems, including a failure to identify legally authorized workers due to its reliance on the error-ridden databases of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Discrepancies between workers' social security numbers and SSA records can result from many innocent factors, including simple human error.  The data error rates in both SSA and DHS files concerning work-eligible U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and visa holders are well-documented.

The SSA’s own Inspector General found that more than 70 percent of the discrepancies in the SSA database, upon which E-Verify relies, that could generate a “no match” letter belong to native-born U.S. citizens.   Up to this point this problem has been partially masked by the fact that workers who received an initial non-confirmation could find different employment with a non-E-Verify employer.

Although the E-Verify program is meant as an immigration enforcement tool, it does little to decrease undocumented immigration.  Instead, it will fuel the growth of off-the-books hiring by employers who may prefer to skip W-2 forms and instead pay employees with cash and as a result, sidestep basic workers’ protections. Sanctions will not eradicate a two-tier labor market that pushes undocumented immigrant workers into a shadowy world of low wages, employer harassment, and nonexistent labor protections. It will simply push undocumented workers further underground, continuing a race to the bottom in terms of wages for all workers, including the American middle class and those who hope to join it.


America is not yet a post-racial society

The election of President Barack Obama is heralded by many as a triumphant leap into a new post-racial America, in which the scars of centuries-old racial wounds have healed and equal opportunity flourishes. But the truth is, we still have a long way to go.

It’s 2009 and race still matters. Race affects the type of education you receive, the type of neighborhood in which you live, the likelihood that you or someone you know will be incarcerated, and even the extent to which your community is being affected by the current economic crisis.

As ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Reginald Shuford notes in his law review article, "Why Affirmative Action Remains Essential in the Age of Obama" (.pdf), black men without criminal records are no more likely than white men with criminal records to get a job. Another study illustrates that job applicants with “black-sounding” names are less likely to get a favorable response to their resumes than those with “white-sounding” names.


President Obama: Withdraw citizen reporting program

A troubling new citizen reporting program is being launched at the White House -– targeting those who oppose President Obama’s health care plan –- a program that can only stifle constitutionally-protected free speech.

In an official White House release posted by the White House Director of New Media, Macon Phillips claims that “[t]here is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there” both on the web and floating around in chain emails. Phillips states that “[s]ince we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to”


Selective service provides a model for improved voter registration

There’s a good reason why people are familiar with the Selective Service: When men living in the United States turn eighteen, they’re not simply granted the privileges of being of age; they also become obligated to register for the draft.  And, as any of-age American male can attest, the Selective Service -- the agency charged with registration – does its job well.  The Service keeps records on approximately 17 million men between the ages of 18-25 (95% of the target population), and it regularly updates its registrant list to ensure that it has up-to-date information. But the agency is less remarkable for what it does than how it does it. As a new Brennan Center report suggests, the Service provides a model for modernizing another system that impacts newly-minted eighteen year olds -– voter registration.

The report’s author, Laura Seago, notes that nearly three-quarters of Selective Service registration data is collected through file-sharing with other federal agencies, notably the Department of Labor, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the DMV, which accounts for two-thirds of automatic registration. Additionally, anybody who submits a FAFSA  (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is automatically entered into the database, which substantially increases the likelihood that men will register, knowingly or not. Strikingly, few people actually initiate the registration process themselves; less than a third of the applicants did so in 2008.   As Seago notes, “more than 60 percent of Selective Service-eligible men were automatically registered when they interacted with other government agencies.” In other words, if you’re in the right demographic, the Selective Service might not be on your radar, but you’re most likely on theirs.

Setting the record straight on warrantless wiretapping program (Sen. Dianne Feinstein)

For the past three and a half years there has been a major debate over the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. This program, which involved the surveillance of communications between Americans and people outside of the country, began shortly after September 11.

It was brought to public light in December 2005, was the subject of legislation in 2007 and 2008, and was described in a report written by five Inspectors General released last month. On Monday, former Central Intelligence Agency and NSA Director Michael Hayden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times concerning the "value and legality" of the warrantless surveillance program. I have a different perspective.

General Hayden wrote that the surveillance activities were lawful and had "been consistently deemed lawful by the Justice Department." This is misleading, because until Congress passed the Protect America Act in 2007, these surveillance activities (acknowledged by President Bush in 2005) were conducted outside of the governing law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). That was done despite a provision in law that specifically stated FISA was to be the "exclusive means" by which electronic surveillance could be done for foreign intelligence purposes.