Biden pledges pandemic relief
Local officials, activists see promise in pledges for education, civil rights
President Joe Biden gave his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, promising billions of dollars for infrastructure improvements and education support as well as immigration and civil rights reforms.
The president’s proposed initiatives received mixed reactions from local officials and advocates, who are counting on federal aid to fund projects that are essential to COVID-19 recovery.
The president dedicated a portion of his speech to George Floyd and Floyd’s daughter Gianna, calling for more police reform. He urged the Senate to pass the George Floyd bill before the anniversary of Floyd’s death in May.
The bill makes basic police reforms mandatory across the nation, including bans on no-knock warrants, racial profiling and chokeholds. It would also limit qualified immunity and create a national registry of officers who commit misconduct.
State Rep. Nika Elugardo, a member of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said there needs to be a more comprehensive review of how federal law upholds systemic inequities.
“I think that we need to do a full constitutional analysis of the ways in which our regular jurisprudence — the completely legal behavior of the state and state actors — particularly in the criminal justice role, reinforce structural inequities and their impact,” she said.
Elugardo says that beyond policing, there are housing policies and disability policies that keep inequities in place, especially for Black people.
“If we are just looking at things like qualified immunity or use of force, those are very important symptoms of the deeper problems to address, but they’re not addressing the deeper problem,” she said.
That deeper problem is the way we broadly interpret the government’s right to everyday policing behaviors, she said, allowing for violence targeted at people of color.
Instead of following up on his previous promises to eliminate student debt for some students, Biden is turning his attention to community college. He promoted his American Families Plan, which aims to provide two years of free community college and invest $46 billion to create more affordability for students at historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges.
As for early education, he’s calling for $200 billion for free preschool and $9 billion to better equip teachers with the training they need.
Education leaders commended the Biden administration for these historic investments.
“We need to start kids much earlier with high-quality childcare and preschool, as a way to get them ready for their K-12 education,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association Vice President Max Page.
However, Page was disappointed that the president did not mention student debt forgiveness and said it’s important to acknowledge the work activists did to bring attention to all these issues at the federal level.
Vatsady Sivongxay, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, said that free community college is crucial to closing the gap in education for low-income Black and brown students.
“A lot of immigrants and low-income folks … may be losing their jobs or have already lost their jobs because of the economy. Two-year college is really going to provide that opportunity for them to get back on track,” Sivongxay said.
Biden also called for an increase in funding for the Pell Grant program, a federal grant for first-time undergraduate students that doesn’t have to be repaid, which is supposed to stop low-income students from taking out a loan — without directly addressing the student debt crisis.
President Biden urged Congress to pass his immigration reform bill, no matter what side they are on.
“If you believe we need to secure the border, pass it, because it has a lot of money for high-tech border security. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship, pass it,” he said during the speech.
The bill provides a pathway for “Dreamers,’ or undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by an adult, to get a green card at a faster rate. It also stresses keeping families together, in response to separation at the border, by increasing per-country visa caps and eliminating some provisions that separate families.
He also says that the country needs to address the “root causes of migration,” by increasing assistance to countries like Guatemala and El Salvador where people are rapidly fleeing from violence and political corruption.
Patricia Montes, executive director of the immigrant rights organization Centro Presente, told the Banner that though reforms are important, the U.S. still needs to own up for their part in creating these root causes Biden talks about.
“What we are seeing right now in Central America is a clear result of the U.S. economic foreign policy for a very long time,” Montes said. “The question is, are the policies and programs that the U.S. has been implementing since 1965 in Central America working? Not necessarily for ordinary people.”
Biden has proposed the American Jobs Plan, which includes upgrades to transportation infrastructure. The plan is to modernize roads and bridges, and upgrade ports and existing transit.
According to the plan, “the Department of Transportation estimates a repair backlog of over $105 billion, representing more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement.”
Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, agrees with this sentiment, and wants to see the president do away with a historical lack of funding for infrastructure.
“Transit has a huge backlog that definitely needs to be addressed. And we need to have a fundamental reset,” he said.
Biden is calling on Congress to invest $85 billion in public transit. His plan also includes $20 billion for a new program to reconnect neighborhoods that have been cut off by roads and highways, which during the urban renewal and highway expansion programs of the 1950s and ’60s often left Black communities isolated from the cities in which they were situated.
“Some of these streets are still highways and they’re still causing a lot of harm in our Black communities today,” Johnson said.