By Jonathan Greenblatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post Blog
President Obama has said that his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 12 will be framed around “the big things” he sees as being priorities in the years to come, rather than taking a policy-centric approach to the speech. He has said that there is more work that needs to be done, and we agree.
In the run-up to the president’s address, we at the Anti-Defamation League asked members of our staff and some of our offices across the country for some insights on which issues deserve priority treatment during the president’s address. Our completed list follows. ADL’s priorities for the president include: 1) Fighting prejudice and discrimination 2) welcoming asylum seekers and refugees while protecting national security 3) safeguarding religious freedom 4) Reinforcing a commitment to Iran sanctions, and 5) Supporting a strengthened Israel-U.S. relationship.
One caveat: I should note that while we have numbered these, they are each separate and distinct issues and not ordered by importance. We believe each of these issues deserves priority treatment by the administration at this unique time in American history when we are faced with myriad challenges and opportunities.
Let’s hope the president takes on some of these issues as he heads into his final year in office.
Fighting Prejudice, Extremism and Discrimination
Last week’s reaffirmation of federal education anti-discrimination laws, coming at a time of escalating prejudice and violence against specific populations– refugees, immigrants, and the Muslim community – was a needed, welcome reminder for schools. The Department of Justice also has used its authority under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 very effectively, but much more training and outreach for local police is needed. A 21st century policing model should include incentives for departments to ensure they are reporting credible hate crime data to the FBI. Criminal justice reform, including legislation now moving through Congress, must promote initiatives to interrupt the school to prison pipeline and efforts to build police-community relations. And the President should use SOTU to further explain his new gun violence prevention initiatives, which were announced the same day ADL released a new report documenting that 2015 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence in the past 20 years, with firearms, overwhelmingly, the extremist weapon of choice in 2015 – as in virtually every year. Finally, we hope the President will press for essential legislation to restore crucial voting rights protections eliminated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. If Congress fails to act, the November elections will be the first Presidential election in 50 years without the robust protections of the Voting Rights Act.
Welcoming Asylum-Seekers and Refugees AND Protecting National Security
Some Members of Congress have recently called for blocking President Obama’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. This is unfortunate on so many levels and inconsistent with our principles as a country whose origins and evolution are so bound up with generations of immigrants and refugees. The SOTU is an opportunity for the President to urge Congress to oppose efforts to halt U.S. refugee resettlement or to restrict funding for refugees, including Syrian refugees. We hope that the President will reiterate that America can keep its borders safe and, at the same time, welcome refugees that are fleeing the brutality of ISIS. The American screening process for refugees works – it is the single most difficult way to enter the United States. America must not turn its back on its fundamental commitment to refugee protections.
As thousands of men, woman, and children have fled horrific realities of brutal violence and extreme poverty and hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, we also have serious concerns about the Administration’s recent campaign of home raids to round up and deport these families and adult asylum-seekers. We hope to hear President Obama speak out and direct the Department of Homeland Security to stop these raids and deportations. Moreover, children and families fleeing for their lives must be protected and have access to legal counsel so that they can apply for asylum and protection in the United States.
The President should also use the SOTU to encourage Congress to recommit to advancing comprehensive immigration reform that provides for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, sound border security, safeguards against bias and discrimination, and family reunification.
Protecting Religious Freedom, LGBT Equality and Reproductive Rights
The President should commit to continuing his administration’s support for vigorous religious freedom advocacy on the federal, state and local levels, including opposing organized prayer. At the same time, the administration should continue to demonstrate leadership on issues of importance to the LGBT community – which have resulted in positive, systemic changes in protections and equal rights for LGBT people – by making it clear that measures couched as supporting religious freedom that permit businesses to evade anti-discrimination laws and refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity are not acceptable. On the issue of reproductive rights, we understand that all eyes will be on the United States Supreme Court this year as it considers restrictions on Texas women’s clinics that we think are unnecessary and unconstitutional, but we hope the President will underscore his opposition to the Texas legislation and other similar initiatives.
Reinforcing America’s Commitment to Enforcement of Iran Sanctions
Iran continues to take actions promoting policies and human right violations that profoundly conflict with core American values. As we move closer to “implementation day,” when the IAEA would certify that Iran has met the requirements under the nuclear agreement to lift international sanctions, Iran’s ongoing human rights violations and its external aggressions must be taken into account when considering the prospect of normalized relations. The United States cannot look away from the institutionalized discrimination facing ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, including Baha'is, Christians, Jews, and Sunni Arabs. Their treatment ranges from quiet intimidation to systematic imprisonment. LGBT citizens fare far worse. The Iranian regime continues its decades-long support of terrorism against Israel and other countries, and routinely promotes fantastical anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including mocking the Holocaust and accusing Israel of creating ISIS. It also has lent financial and military support to the murderous campaign of the Syrian government.
The U.S. should be vigilant in using existing sanctions targeting these practices and explore new tools that might be needed to target both human rights violations and JCPOA violations.
We hope the President will send a strong message Tuesday night to Tehran that there will be consequences to testing both the boundaries of the nuclear agreement and continuing its nefarious behavior in the region, and repressive policies toward its own people.
Supporting a Renewed U.S.-Israel Relationship
Congress and the Administration recognize the unique security threats and challenges facing Israel and the President should reaffirm the unshakeable U.S. commitment to Israel and its security in the SOTU. Negotiations between the U.S. and Israel are underway for a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure Israel is able to maintain its qualitative military edge over its adversaries. The current MOU provides $30 billion in assistance to Israel over a 10-year period and is set to expire in 2017.
As he enters his last full year in office, President Obama clearly has a full plate. He also has the opportunity to work with Congress to institutionalize changes, altering the landscape – domestically and internationally – in ways that will endure well beyond his presidency. We and the nation will be paying close attention.