President Joe Biden swearing in ceremony (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights)
By Scott Wright
“This is the moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities … We need economies that give everyone access to the fruits of creation., to the basic needs of life: land, lodging, and labor. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded, and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives.” – Pope Francis, Let Us Dream
At the beginning of this year, with the inauguration of a new President and the beginning of a new Congress, we shared our advocacy priorities for 2021. This week marks the end of the first one hundred days of the Biden administration, and presents us with an opportunity to evaluate the new administration and the new Congress in light of our advocacy goals and Columban concerns. In the following analysis, we note both lights and shadows.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic one year ago, 570,000 people have died in the U.S., and more than three million have died worldwide. The Biden administration has responded boldly to the pandemic, doubling its initial goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses in the first 100 days to 200 million, and vowing to make vaccines widely available throughout rural and urban America. But there are concerns about access to vaccines, especially by those who are most vulnerable to being hospitalized and dying from COVID, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach supported the passage by both houses of Congress of the American Rescue Plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan provides relief to people in the form of stimulus payments, unemployment compensation, child tax credits, state and local fiscal recovery, and homeowner and rental assistance. But we continue to be concerned about the lack of access to vaccines among poor countries in the global South, as successive waves of the pandemic take an increasing toll on the poor.
We have joined interfaith partners to call on both the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to prioritize measures that would increase vaccine access and provide poor countries with the economic support they need to confront the pandemic. That includes waiving intellectual property rights so that vaccines may be produced and distributed in a more urgent fashion in countries where the pandemic continues to take a massive toll.
The Biden administration has also taken bold measures to address climate change, signaled by its decision to formally rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and initiated steps to create a multilateral approach to addressing the need for drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions fueled by the global dependance on fossil fuels for energy.
Following the passage of the American Rescue Act, the administration turned its attention to a bold infrastructure plan which it submitted to Congress that includes measures to rebuild our economy, reduce dependance on fossil fuels and increase support for jobs in renewable energy. At the April 22 Climate Summit, President Biden proposed an even bolder goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach fully supports these measures and seeks to build a bipartisan consensus in line with the spirit and values of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on integral ecology. We continue be concerned about the multiple damages created by the ravages of climate change, including forced migration and increasing numbers of climate refugees, as well as irreversible biodiversity loss and destruction of the Amazon and the world’s vulnerable ecosystems.
We are encouraged by the President Biden’s initial decision to reunite the migrant families who were forcibly separated from their children, as well as his support for a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, for migrant farmworkers, and for immigrants living in the United States with Temporary Protective Status (TPS). But we are concerned that migrants and refugees may be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. The failure to live up to his initial announcement to admit 125,000 refugees over the next two years is a case in point.
Of particular concern is the failure to rebuild the asylum system in a manner that accommodates the desperate situation of migrants and refugees on the border. The policy of welcoming unaccompanied children but deporting adults only encourages family separation. The use of Title 42 to expel migrants and their families on public health grounds is being used punitively. Most concerning, are conversations with Central American and Mexico governments urging them to prevent migrants from crossing borders, using force if necessary.
The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, in collaboration with Columban ministries to migrants and asylum-seekers on both sides of the U.S. – Mexico border, has strongly advocated for the rights and protections of migrants and refugees. We have promoted our nation’s values as a country of welcome to immigrants, and the Gospel teaching that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ. We have also joined interfaith partners to address the root causes of forced migration, including dire poverty, growing violence, climate disasters, and hunger.
The Biden administration and the Congress have put forward several proposals addressing racial justice, but that does not guarantee their passage. Since the murder of George Floyd, and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, systemic racism and white supremacy have come to dominate both the media and the administrative and legislative agenda. This has affected proposals for economic and racial justice.
In terms of economic justice, both the American Rescue Plan (Covid-19 package) and the Biden administration’s proposal for a bold Infrastructure Plan, respond to the economic and racial disparities brought to light by the pandemic. The disproportionate lack of access on the part of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to living wages and employment with benefits, housing and rental assistance, health care and education, and pollution-free neighborhoods is addressed in these major pieces of legislation.
The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach welcomes these administrative initiatives and legislative actions. However, we view with concern the continuing divides with regard to voting rights and police violence. We are hopeful that the Biden administration and Congress will support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which restores the measures of the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which strikes down qualified immunity and strengthens accountability. The SAFE Justice act also proposes needed reforms in sentencing, particularly for nonviolent offenders.
Finally, the Biden administration has taken steps to restore a multilateral approach to foreign policy and announced an end to the twenty-year war in Afghanistan. The renewal of the bilateral START treaty with Russia, which keeps in place the reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons, and multilateral talks with Iran, are welcome initiatives. But tensions remain, between China and Taiwan, and Russia and the Ukraine, and especially in Myanmar. Gun violence in the U.S. is also a major concern.
The Columban Center welcomed the UN ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed in January of this year, and we urge our government and other nuclear nations to ratify it as well. Pope Francis’ call for a global cease-fire during the COVID pandemic last year was another step in the Church’s call for global disarmament and an end to war. We also joined interfaith partners in calling for a ten percent cut in the Pentagon budget, to free up funds for humanitarian purposes, including support for nonviolent alternatives to violence and war.
We reaffirm both the urgency and the opportunity of this moment for our country. In Pope Francis’ words: “This is a time of reckoning,” and also a time for national reconciliation: “The basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same.” May we respond with the boldness and openness the moment requires.
Scott Wright is the Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach.
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.