Low Expectations but High Hopes Remain for Action in 2014

By Eric Rodriguez, Vice President, NCLR Policy Center, NCLR

Last Tuesday, President Obama laid out an agenda for 2014 that aimed high but remained grounded in reality.  In order to get anything done on a grand scale, the president must work with a Congress that has produced very little in recent years.  His message was clear—if Congress cannot act, then he will.

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We were encouraged to see the president shine the spotlight on inequality in this country by taking administrative action to address issues ranging from retirement savings to the minimum wage.  The president also discussed growth and opportunity, touching on important topics discussed at kitchen tables all over the country.  Many Latinos strongly believe that taking responsibility and working hard will help you get ahead in life, so the president’s call to restore that promise is welcome.  Individuals overcoming the odds and making a difference are stories known well in every Latino neighborhood, family, and community. 

While good things can be done just with the president’s executive authority, however, the simple fact is that Washington has to work together to have a more meaningful and sweeping impact on addressing our most pressing social and economic challenges.  To truly reign in the income gap, reduce significant health disparities, fix our immigration system, and ensure that all children have access to a quality, affordable education, we need our government working together.

Latino FamilyHow can Congress and president rebuild and regain the trust of the American people this year?  Here are some of the ways we can think of:

  • Enact legislation that not only helps to create jobs, but also invests in job training and employment for our youth, such as the “Pathways Back to Work Act.”
  • Follow the president’s lead by enacting legislation that will raise the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 per hour.
  • Reform the tax code to reduce poverty, promote economic mobility, and support asset building among low- and middle-income families while also protecting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.
  • Strengthen early childhood education investments and policies to expand access and reach a higher proportion of young children.
  • Reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to increase support for effective teaching, bolster instructional services, improve assessments for English language learners, and maintain strong accountability provisions to ensure that all students succeed.
  • Reauthorize the Higher Education Act to make college more affordable by holding colleges and universities accountable for rising tuition costs and student debt accumulation.
  • Enact legislation that protects LGBT applicants and employees in the workplace from being completely ignored in the applicant pool or discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
  • Repeal the rest of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevents states from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states.
  • Enact legislation that prevents bullying and harassment of all students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression.
  • Enact legislation to restore voting rights protections.

The legislation above stands to improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans, and Congress should make good progress on these fronts this year.  That said, our hopes for enacting significant legislation this year are highest with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.  Immigration reform was mentioned in both the president’s speech and the Republican response, a signal that the discussion has moved from “whether” to enact reform to “how.”  Thousands of families continue to be ripped apart, while aspiring Americans are forced to live and work in the shadows.  Lack of reform is depriving the country of economic benefits and, combined with record-setting deportations, having devastating effects on the social fabric of communities.  Congress and the president can remedy this problem in 2014 by:

  • Passing comprehensive immigration reform using the bipartisan bill in the Senate as a model, which will not only modernize our immigration system and make it more equitable but also create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and take the legitimate traffic out of the black market
  • Including a road map to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in whatever final agreement is reached to prevent creating a second class of citizens

These initiatives reflect our highest hopes for a productive Congress this year.  However, expectations are low for a reason.  Just a few months ago Congress shut down the government, damaging the economy and the nation’s reputation in the world for no reason other than to try to hurt the president politically.  Congress has also allowed unemployment benefits to lapse, hurting millions, and is about to pass a Farm Bill that cuts $8 billion in food assistance to poor families.  Finding ways to work around Congress this year is prudent for anyone who seeks to help people.  The president has put out some important steps, but more can be done here too.

First, the Obama administration can do better to enforce prosecutorial discretion, focusing government resources on deporting dangerous criminals rather than those who pose no threat.

Second, the administration can work with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to create a housing finance system that holds true to core values of access and affordability and enables families to build or protect wealth.

Third, the president’s signature achievement to date, health care reform, is on track but challenges remain in the implementation process for families with eligible immigrant parents and children.  While much is being done, the administration can invest more time and resources this year to fulfill the promise of reform for Latino families.

Finally, the president can aspire to set more ambitious and explicit goals for itself in making sure that his administration better reflects the growing diversity of the country and includes more Latinos among its ranks.  As the administration reviews the hiring practices of agencies to ensure that long-term unemployed or veterans are getting an opportunity serve, a laudable and necessary effort, they certainly can review with eye toward diversity as well.

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