Social justice advocates react to the State of the Union address

Social justice advocates react to the State of the Union address

This story was originally published at Prism.

President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on March 1 to bipartisan support and applause, but advocates across some of the country’s most pressing issues, including immigration, reproductive rights, and police reform, were left disappointed. Prism spoke to advocates of some of the key issues Biden addressed during his speech and asked for their reactions.

Immigration

Biden made his bipartisan approach explicitly clear when he addressed immigration.

“If we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure our border and fix the immigration system,” Biden said during his speech. “We can do both.”

Haddy Gassama, UndocuBlack’s policy and advocacy director, said she was surprised to hear Biden use language, such as “secure the border,” that the prior Trump administration consistently used.

“When it comes to immigration enforcement, the Biden administration as a whole analyzes and looks at everything from the lens of the border, and quite frankly, what will Republicans or the right say about how he is managing the border,” Gassama said. “From that vantage point, we know that he’s not leading from a place of morality or ethics or goodwill.”

Biden called on an increase of surveillance technology at the border, which Gassama says is particularly disheartening to hear during the ongoing investigation of horse patrol activity at the Del Rio, Texas, border in September 2021, when DHS patrol agents were seen whipping Haitian migrants.

“As an organization that is a network of Black migrants, that language is always disturbing,” Gassama said. “We know that historically, any form of border enforcement disproportionately harms Black migrants. To hear the president, while the Del Rio investigation is still going on, talk about further funding technological advances to the border, it’s a cause for pause certainly, and it is worrying.”

Notably absent in his speech was any mention of Title 42, the policy that cites health mitigation in the midst of a pandemic as reason to block asylum-seekers from entering the U.S., and which has drastically impacted Haitian migrants. According to Witness at the Border, from Sept. 19 through January 2022, 152 ICE Air flights to Haiti returned about 16,300 migrants, and since Biden’s inauguration in 2021, 189 flights have returned about 19,300 migrants.

When discussing COVID-19, Biden painted a picture of a nation toward the end of the night, with case numbers as low as they were in July 2021, where COVID-19 “no longer need control our lives.”

“I think it’s contradictory,” Gassama said. “He is invoking that we’re in a better place as it relates to COVID, yet he is doubling down on the Title 42 policy that is denying people their right to apply for asylum and using COVID as an excuse. So, which is it?”

Gassama and other immigration advocates would have liked Biden to address the state of the Build Back Better bill and the intention to pass a reconciliation bill that would include the immigration provisions that he mentioned, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, those on temporary status, and Dreamers.  

“It was good rhetoric, but there was no plan,” said Ronald Claude, the director of policy and advocacy for Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “We need to know how are you going to do this because what we’ve seen for the last year is that he wanted to pass it, but if we still have some senators that disagree, like, Sen. [Joe] Manchin and Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema.”

Claude would have also liked to see Biden address criminal carveout, which excludes individuals with certain prior criminal convictions from immigration legal services and disproportionately impacts Black migrants.

Greisa Martinez Rosas, the executive director for United We Dream, would also like to see a concrete plan to release immigrants from detention and end Title 42.

“I look forward to [Biden] talking about the timeline and the process in which he will make good on his promise about delivering protections for millions of people,” Rosas said. “I would like for him to address his plan to release our community members from detention. There’s tens of thousands of people that are being detained in this moment, both in the southern border and across the U.S., and [I would like to know] what he’s doing to ensure that we are ending the use of the inhumane and racist policies like Title 42 and ‘Remain in Mexico.’”

With midterms approaching, Gassama echoes Rosas’ concerns.

“We have this window of opportunity to actually have real change occur,” Gassama said. “Whatever he’s saying in speeches is quite frankly not enough until we actually hear a concrete plan of action on how he plans to deliver this pathway to citizenship that he mentioned.”

Police reform

Biden surprised many people by referencing the movement to defund the police, but not in the way they would have hoped for.

“We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said during his speech. “It’s to fund the police … with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

Biden specified that the American Rescue Plan provided $350 billion to hire more police. Advocates for defunding the police were upset by this call for more funding for an institution that is rarely held accountable and whose presence does not always lead to community safety.

“What they’ve been resourced with has only hurt our communities,” Claude said. “They are not listening to the community because the community will tell you that more funding, unfortunately, has killed Black people.”

Claude believes Biden’s message is another attempt to appease moderate and right-wing voters. Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives agrees.

“That was an attempt to appease and neutralize the controversy around the impact of the ‘defund the police’ slogan,” Enyia said. “But, the issues that people have called for go far beyond a slogan. Investment in communities is absolutely at the top of people’s minds.”

Economy

When discussing the economy, Biden mentioned cutting the cost of child care, more affordable housing, passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, paid leave, and notably, expanding the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The latter was ended in December 2021 after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin did not support the Build Back Better package of which it was a part. The extension of the CTC in the American Families Plan was one of the most successful and effective policies from the Biden administration, as it lifted more than 3 million children out of poverty and slashed food insecurity, especially for families of color. Families have already seen a dire impact after it ended. According to Columbia University, 3.7 million children have fallen back into poverty in the months of its absence, losing nearly all of the progress the U.S. has gained because of the CTC.

Natalie Foster, the co-chair of the Economic Security Project, was happy to see that the CTC is alive in Washington and that Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state brought a former federal CTC recipient with her as a virtual guest to the address.

“I’m feeling optimistic, and I thought broadly, it was good to hear Joe Biden make the case that we need to invest in families to help with the rising costs,” Foster said.

Ultimately, she believes it will be a “huge detriment” to the party that is seen as standing in the way of the CTC. According to data from Data for Progress, the difference between a proactive message and one blaming Democrats for the CTC’s expiration is a swing of 14 points among likely voters and stunning swing of 32 points among parents. A Morning Consult survey additionally found that support for Democrats has eroded more quickly among former recipients of the monthly CTC payments, shrinking 13 points since December.

Enyia would have also liked Biden to address the increase in unemployment facing Black women.

“We have to be sure that we’re not sort of painting a picture that is not the reality,” Enyia said. “There’s a huge racial wealth gap that people are experiencing in real-time. So the question is, ‘Will student loan debt be canceled?’ These are the things that Black voters, in particular, want this administration to deliver.”

Reproductive rights

As the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, Biden made sure to mention the importance of “protecting the rights of women.” He directly referred to the attack on Roe v. Wade and said a “woman’s right to choose” must be preserved. But, the one word missing was “abortion.”

We Testify abortion storytellers were disappointed by the lack of a concrete plan to protect and expand abortion access, especially after the Biden administration’s statement on the failed Senate vote for the Women’s Health Protection Act also failed to mention “abortion” specifically.

“He had an opportunity to make history and be the first president to speak positively and supportively about abortion,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the executive director of We Testify, in a statement. “While President Biden’s State of the Union remarks did mention the need to protect Roe v. Wade, he did not mention how he plans to do that and once again refused to use the word abortion—furthering stigma and once again not meeting the historic and terrifying moment we are in. For every other issue, he painted a picture of what he’ll do to rebuild America, from electric car charging stations and high-speed internet, but he refuses to build back better for abortion.”

We Testify’s Say Abortion Joe campaign has monitored the Biden administration’s refusal to use the word abortion, including in their 2021 and 2022 Roe v. Wade anniversary statements.

“We needed to hear President Biden declare in his State of the Union speech that abortion is health care, health care is a human right, and that everyone loves someone who had abortions, and it’s on us to ensure we’re all able to access abortion care at any time and any reason,” Sherman said. “Unfortunately, he was once again silent.”

Morgan Hopkins, the interim executive director of campaigns and strategies at All* Above All, similarly commends Biden for alluding to the abortion care crisis the nation faces but says it was not enough. Anti-abortion state politicians are pushing a record number of restrictions, and a looming Supreme Court decision could devastate access in even more states.

“Last year, President Biden pledged a ‘whole-of-government’ response to Texas’ extreme abortion ban, and six months later, we need to see more concrete steps from the White House to address the crisis we are in,” Hopkins said in a statement. “No one should be forced to travel to another state for abortion care because of political gamesmanship. It’s no game, because people of color working to make ends meet are the ones hurt most. The urgent moment we are in demands action. Abortion justice can’t wait.”

As Biden’s approval rating among Democrats and Black voters continues to slide, advocates across the issues agree he has a lot of work to do to follow through on the promises he made to the voters who got him elected. Advocates say passing a reconciliation bill will address many of Biden’s promises. Claude hopes Biden will follow through on his pathway to citizenship for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, extend TPS for Haitian migrants, and designate it for Cameroon and Ethiopia as well. As Foster said, the party that stands in the way of passing CTC will lose support. It is a critical moment to pass these proposed legislations in the months leading up to the midterm elections.  

“Black voters want to see the administration fighting for them,” Enyia said. “We want and need this administration to do well. That’s the crux of our efforts to hold them accountable and make sure that they are hearing from us and hearing what people are saying.”  

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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