Category: Federal Legislation

Emergency Actions Related to Paid Sick Leave Amidst Coronavirus

May 18th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation

Coronavirus COVID-19 has affected the United States unlike any other national crisis:  schools and higher education alike have shifted to virtual classes, millions of employees are working from home, restaurants and gyms are closed down and travel has stopped abruptly. Americans are being told to social distance for fear of spreading the virus. The future seems unclear, as there is no established end date in sight. The United States Congress attempted to respond accordingly passing legislation quickly in response to this crisis. The legislation has attempted to mitigate issues surrounding paid family leave. At this time, paid sick leave is essential to prevent sick people from being out in society, and workers need the opportunity to stay home or the transmission of Coronavirus (COVID-19) will steadily increase. It is important for the health of the public and of the economy, that Coronavirus (COVID-19) decrease, so the hospitals will no longer be at risk of being overcapacity and society can resume as normal.

Bill H.R.6201 – Families First Coronavirus Response Act was one of the first pieces of legislation aimed to restore the country. This bill was quickly signed into law as Public Law No: 116-127. According to the National Law Review, “the bill [went to the] Senate, on March 16 and [easily passed with few revisions]; President Trump publicly expressed support for the bill and in addition to various public health preparations, the bill includes many provisions that will directly impact employers.

“This [law] responds to the coronavirus outbreak by providing paid sick leave, free coronavirus testing, expanding food assistance, unemployment benefits, and requiring employers to provide additional protections for health care workers. Specifically, the law provides FY2020 supplemental appropriations to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for nutrition and food assistance programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP); and nutrition assistance grants for U.S. territories.

At this time, paid sick leave is essential to prevent sick people from being out in society. For many Americans unpaid sick leave is not a viable choice. The need to earn money and stay on top of bills often overrides the desire to self-quarantine and get healthy. It is a problem of collective action. However, the severity of COVID-19 shows the importance for Americans to self-quarantine to prevent overwhelming the health care system as shown by this graph:

If sick workers are incentivized to stay at home during an illness as serious as COVID, this will limit the spread of the illness, and hopefully allow Americans to recover at home rather than filling up emergency rooms. Paid sick leave can “flatten the curve,” and although such measures prolong the existence of the virus, the effect on emergency medical systems are more manageable.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides an employee may take up to 12 weeks of paid, job-protected leave if the employee:

  1. is complying with a requirement or recommendation to quarantine due to coronavirus exposure or symptoms, and cannot work from home
  2. is caring for an at-risk family member who is quarantining; or
  3. is caring for the employee’s child if the child’s school or place of care has been closed due to public health emergency.

However, the first 14 days of the leave may be unpaid. Employees may choose to use any accrued paid time off, including vacation and sick leave, to cover the initial 14-day period, but employers may not require them to do so. After the 14-day period, the employer must pay full-time employees not less than two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate for the number of hours the employee would otherwise normally be scheduled. For salaried employees, employers must pay two-thirds of the base salary for the weeks remaining after the initial 14-day period.

Violating the Emergency Paid Sick Time Act will be treated as seriously as a Violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C. §206) (FLSA), meaning that the employers might be subject to substantial penalties under that Act including, but not limited to liquidated damages and fines, among other penalties. Additionally, the law attempts to expand food assistance and unemployment benefits. The law modifies USDA food assistance and nutrition programs to:

“allow certain waivers to requirements for the school meal programs, suspend the work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program), and allow states to request waivers to provide certain emergency SNAP benefits.” You can access more information about this here.

Additionally, the law provides, “$500 million to provide access to nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women or mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off due to the COVID-19 emergency.” This extra effort is very important in order to support American women and children at this time. Moreover, according to the government sources the law also establishes a federal emergency paid leave benefits program. Additionally, the law also aims to expand unemployment benefits and provide grants to states for processing and paying claims, requires employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, establishes requirements for providing coronavirus diagnostic testing at no cost to consumers, and to temporarily increase the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP).

This pandemic has been unprecedented in our nation’s history. U.S. legislators have scrambled to address the COVID crisis and mitigate the damage to both the health of the public and the economy. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act  assists multiple facets of life affected by the virus by providing paid sick leave and free coronavirus testing, expanding food assistance and unemployment benefits, and requiring employers to provide additional protections for health care workers. The law does a good job of solving the collective action problem surrounding this. Additionally, it will directly assist the hospitals from becoming over capacitated. Ensuring that infected citizens aren’t compromised or pressured to go to work is a critical component of defeating the spread of this virus.

 

Diana Alexandra Martinez anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May 2021.

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To Combat Adolescent Tobacco Use, Federal Law Raises Purchasing Age to 21

May 14th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, Local Legislation, State Legislation

In the final weeks of 2019, in the wake of an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and death, the federal government raised the minimum age of tobacco sales from 18 to 21. The widely-supported amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was included in an appropriations bill that Congress approved on December 19th and President Trump signed into law the next day. The new law makes it illegal to sell tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes/vapes, to anyone under the age of 21 throughout the United States. While the law is a positive step for public health, it is long overdue and lacks much needed enforcement enhancement measures. 

The federal government followed in the footsteps of 19 states, Washington D.C., and hundreds of local governments which had already increased the tobacco age to 21. The push to increase the tobacco age is referred to as the Tobacco 21 movement. The first Tobacco 21 law was enacted in Nedham, Massachusetts in 2005. In 2013, New York City became the first major city to pass a Tobacco 21 law. The wave of state-level Tobacco 21 laws began in 2016 with Hawaii and California, and continued with

Hawaii State Capitol Building
Honolulu, 1969

Washington and New Jersey in 2017, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts in 2018, Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, Arkansas, Maryland, Vermont, Texas, Connecticut and Ohio in 2019, and Washington, Utah, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota in 2020. New Mexico is the latest state to pass a tobacco 21 law which will go into effect in 2021.

The Tobacco 21 movement is supported by a strong foundation of research demonstrating the importance and efficacy of raising the age. In the Surgeon General’s 2012 report on Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, the epidemiological research showed that “adolescence and young adulthood represent[s] a time of heightened vulnerability to tobacco use and the initiation of cigarette smoking.” The rationale behind increasing the age from 18 to 21 is to reduce the number of people who begin smoking (or vaping) by making it more difficult to access tobacco during the years of highest vulnerability. And studies show that 98% percent of smokers begin before 26 years old and 90% of daily cigarette use begins before 20 years of age.  Raising the age not only makes it more difficult for 18-20 year-olds to purchase tobacco, it also reduces access for minors who often rely on friends who are 18 and older to purchase tobacco products for them. In fact, it is estimated that “90% of persons who purchase cigarettes for distribution to minors are under 21.

In addition to conventional cigarettes and tobacco products, Tobacco 21 laws also prevent people under the age of 21 from buying electronic cigarettes or vapes. This is because electronic cigarettes are deemed to be tobacco products by the FDA. Electronic cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco products among youth today, and a 2018 study showed that 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students use these products. Those numbers were likely even higher in 2019 when the mysterious vaping illnesses, which prompted this legislation, began. Even before the outbreak, the high rate of electronic cigarette use among American youth was troubling. Not only were public health officials warning of the known harms associated with vaping (such as potential for lung damage, and dangers of nicotine consumption for brain development), but also the universe of unknown risks associated with vaping as these products are relatively new and rapidly changing.

The vaping illness outbreak began in August 2019, when vaping product users— including many teens—suddenly began presenting to emergency departments with severe lung injuries. By December 4th, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention had confirmed over 2,200  cases and 48 deaths related to the outbreak. The reason for the sudden increase in vaping related illness was not immediately clear, and it stirred up panic among parents of teenagers and mobilized public health professionals who had long feared the harmful effects of vaping.

With the outbreak capturing the nation’s attention, Congress and the Trump administration were under pressure to do something to address the problem. With such powerful momentum in the Tobacco 21 movement, public health advocates and policy makers had already began calling for a federal Tobacco 21 law years ago (read more about that here, or here). Passing a federal Tobacco 21 law to address the vaping illness outbreak was an easy choice because, in contrast to more drastic measures such as banning electronic cigarettes entirely, raising the age enabled Congress to respond to the fear and public outcry surrounding the vaping illnesses in a manner that was actually supported by tobacco and vaping companies. While some advocates feel that raising the age was not a drastic enough measure to combat the vaping epidemic, it is certainly a positive step for public health and to combat tobacco consumption generally.

While the new law will make it more difficult for those under 21 to access tobacco products, the efficacy will depend largely on proper enforcement of the law. Enforcement of age restrictions on tobacco purchasing has been demonstrably poor, with many retailers still selling tobacco products to minors before the new law became effective. While amending the FDCA, Congress could have used this opportunity to not only raise the tobacco age but also to ramp up the enforcement mechanisms contained within the Act, by increasing funding, penalties or requirements on the number of compliance checks. Unfortunately, that did not occur and the new law. Without a change in the law to effectuate stricter enforcement measures, it will be difficult for the federal and state governments to oversee enforcement of the law and to make sure that retailers properly comply.

The federal Tobacco 21 law is a bittersweet victory for public health champions who have been warning against the risks of vaping and campaigning for an increase in the tobacco age since long before the mysterious vaping illnesses began. In order for our tobacco laws to truly be successful, our legislators must increase enforcement and properly fund measures that prevent the initiation of tobacco use. As with all areas of public health, we must act to prevent —not just respond once crises have already begun.

Rebecca Mashni graduated from The Ohio State University in 2015 with a B.S. in Public Health and graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2020 with a J.D.

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The Fight for LGBTQ+ Justice and the Equality Act

May 14th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, State Legislation

Throughout American history, the LGBTQ+ community has continually faced unconscionable levels of harassment, discrimination, and vitriol; Congress cannot waste another session without passing the Equality Act into law.

Discrimination against the community is pervasive; LGBTQ+ Americans have reported harm to their mental health (69%), physical well-being and safety (45%), school environment (39%), work environment (53%), and relationships with their neighbors and local communities (57%).  More than half of LGBTQ+ Americans have faced discrimination by healthcare providers.  In surveys, LGBTQ+ Americans admit to using vague language about relationships (42%), refusing to talk about their partner (37%), hiding affiliations to LGBTQ+ groups (15%) and avoiding discussion of LGBTQ+ issues altogether (31%) out of fears of facing harassment and other damaging bigotry.  Additionally, LGBTQ+ people have often changed the way they dress (15%), changed the way they talk (15%), cut important people out of their lives (16%), and moved away from their families (17%) because of the harmful consequences of discrimination.

Furthermore, transgender Americans face a disproportionate share of violence and discrimination – even compared to other members of the LGBTQ+ community.  33% of trans Americans have been denied equal services or physically attacked when visiting a place of public accommodation (like a hotel, restaurant, or government office).  27% of trans workers have been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their gender.  Additionally, 25% have been refused treatment or physically assaulted by their primary physician, health clinic, or hospital due to their gender identity – despite new Affordable Care Act regulations that were written with the specific intention to prohibit such discrimination against trans Americans by federally-funded providers.  Members of the trans community have reported avoiding public transportation (11%), stores and restaurants (26%), and going to the doctor (24%) for fears of facing abuse and violence.

Queer people face high rates of discrimination and violence because of state and federal inaction.  In twenty-nine states, LGBTQ+ Americans can be fired from a job, evicted from their home, or denied a line of credit because their employer, landlord, or bank disapproves of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  In fourteen states, there is no ban on LGBTQ+ discrimination in schools.  Clear and universal legal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans are desperately needed if our country is ever going to heal the evils that have been done for generations against our vulnerable population.

Therefore, Congress must pass a bold LGBTQ+ civil rights bill – such as the Equality Act sponsored by Representative David Cicilline (D-RI).  This legislation would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect Americans from discrimination based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes” in federal funding, education, housing, employment, credit access, jury service, and public accommodations.  It covers claims based on: (1) association with another member of a protected class; or (2) a perception or belief, even if inaccurate, that someone is a member of that class.  The Act would expand “public accommodations” to include “any establishment that provides a good, service, program,…health care, accounting, or legal services,” or “any…transportation service.”  Furthermore, the Act prohibits denying individuals access to a “shared facility” (restroom, locker room, dressing room, etc.) in accordance with their gender identity.  Finally, the bill allows the Justice Department to bring these claims in federal court, and prohibits anyone who violates the Equality Act from asserting protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) as a valid defense to discriminating against LGBTQ+ Americans.

The Equality Act would be a crucial step forward for America. First, the bill expands protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for all protected classes under the law, not just the LGBTQ+ community.  For example, the bill would extend the Civil Rights Act’s current ban on discrimination based on sex to also cover public accommodations, state and local government services, and federal funding.  Second, this bill would enact into federal law stronger anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community than even the most liberal possible Supreme Court decisions could provide through Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (whether discrimination against an employee because of sexual orientation constitutes prohibited employment discrimination “because of . . . sex” within the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2) or R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. (whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their transgender status or (2) sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins) this summer.

Finally, public opinion strongly supports passage of federal LGBTQ+ protections.  79% of Democrats, 56% of Republicans, and 70% of Independents polled in 2018 supported passage of non-discrimination laws to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community.  This support includes a majority in every age group – from millennials to the elderly – and even includes a majority of white evangelical Protestants, a group that typically has conservative positions on social issues.  Outside of polls, there are also a number of powerful interest groups supporting passage of the Equality Act.  Such groups include civil rights organizations (ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, AARP), women’s rights groups (NOW, CLUW), corporations (Visa, Mastercard, Apple, Google, Netflix, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, IBM, Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, Intel, American Airlines), medical and professional organizations (AMA, APA, ABA, National PTA),  unions (CWA, SEIU, AFSCME, AFT), celebrities (Karamo Brown, Nyle DiMarco, Adam Rippon, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Taylor Swift), and religious organizations (Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, More Light Presbyterians, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Muslims for Progressive Values, Hindu American Foundation, Unitarian Universalist Association).
The Equality Act is certainly not perfect.  An ideal bill would attack not just de jure LGBTQ+ discrimination, but also de facto discrimination caused by implicit biases and socioeconomic disparities.  Such a law dedicated to establishing LGBTQ+ justice might: 1) specifically include HIV/AIDS status as a class of protected individuals covered by the Equality Act; 2) expand federal funding for Medicaid, public health clinics, mental health coverage, and combatting youth homelessness; 3) ensure all homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers receiving federal funds are LGBTQ+ affirming; 4) bolster protections against hate crimes, gun violence, and the targeting of LGBTQ+ populations by law enforcement; 5) require all private and public insurance plans to cover HIV prevention; 6) require school districts that receive federal funds to adopt sex education programs that are comprehensive and LGBTQ+ inclusive; 7) institute codes of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment in our public schools; and 8) prohibit LGBTQ+ conversion therapy.  However, under the current limitations of today’s Congress, the Equality Act seems a good first step towards building a broader movement for LGBTQ+ justice over the next decade.

Although polling shows that most Americans do not think “religious objections should be a reason to deny service to an LGBTQ person” in business (57%), healthcare (64%) or employment (62%), a recent Reuters poll found that only 23% of Americans know that federal LGBTQ+ protections haven’t been enacted yet.  Given the high popularity of the Equality Act, and the even higher need for its invaluable protections, Congress must finally pass this vital civil rights bill into law.  The lives of LGBTQ+ men, women, and children across the United States are at stake.

Samuel Shepard graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2020.

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Time to Hang up the Boxing Gloves? The Fight Over the Johnson Amendment

May 14th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, Lobbying

Most Americans have never heard of the Johnson Amendment, never mind the nearly 70 year legal and political battle over its meaning and reach.  What is the Johnson Amendment, and why is it so important to so many organizations that they have been either trying to protect or destroy it for decades? This post will attempt to explain the long-fought political battle over the Johnson Amendment.

The Johnson Amendment prohibits not for profit, or 501(c)(3), organizations from participating in politics, including restricting them from endorsing political candidates. In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sponsored the amendment to the tax code after two tax-exempt organizations opposed his candidacy in the recent Texas primary.  Until then, tax-exempt organizations had been extremely engaged in political activity through the country. The Johnson Amendment was relatively successful in getting tax-exempt organizations from being politically engaged, at least directly. Many organizations, however, simply have separate political branches called 501(c)(4) political action branches. 

Recently, Amendment opponents, such as Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.) and 40 other Republican Representatives, have introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act. This bill seeks to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 “to allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax-exempt purpose.”—effectively repealing the Johnson Amendment. If passed, it will permit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations under Section 501(c)(3) to endorse or oppose political candidates without fear of losing their tax-exempt status.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment are varied, including both secular and religious organizations. The most outspoken supporter of the amendment is the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The FFRF and other similar organizations fear repealing the Johnson Amendment would blur the traditional line between church and state. Other religious organizations, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, oppose the FSFA because they fear getting involved with politics would tarnish the integrity of their faith. Many of these organizations, particularly the FFRF, are especially concerned about the threat of “dark money” they fear repealing the Johnson Amendment would create. “Dark money” refers to political spending by nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their list of donors to the IRS or the public. This hidden list of donors can be problematic as many believe this allows nonprofit organizations to receive donations in exchange for political endorsements, influence in elections, and lobbying activities. Specifically, all 501(c)(3) nonprofits, except for churches and other religious organizations, must submit Form 990 to the IRS and demonstrate how they are spending their money and how much money they are receiving (though it does not require disclosure of who the donors are). Because churches do not need to submit this form, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other opponents of the FSFA fear the bill could lead to churches becoming unregulated Political Action Committees.

Many conservative and religious organizations, on the other hand, support the FSFA. Its biggest proponents are religious organizations such as the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), as well as conservative organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC). The Johnson Amendment has also garnered attention from President Trump, who has promised on many occasions to eliminate it due to its restrictions on free speech for priests, pastors, and other religious organizations. These groups, the sponsors of the FSFA, and the President argue the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional because it stifles free speech, including the ability of religious figures and organizations to openly endorse or oppose individual political candidates from the pulpit. Some groups, like the Family Research Council, even argue the Amendment restricts the content of sermons as well, a claim made in an article titled “Figures of (Free) Speech,” published on February 4, 2019, which has since been taken off of the Family Research Council website.

However, is this argument an accurate representation of the law? Does the Johnson Amendment actually stop religious leaders from preaching on topics like “life or marriage” or of “conscience and convictions,” as the Family Research Council claims? The answer seems to be no. The Johnson Amendment does not restrict churches from discussing social or moral issues with their congregations, or even from lobbying Congress. The only restriction the Johnson Amendment imposes is specifically related to candidate endorsements and/or candidate opposition. Moreover, individual priests and pastors are actually free to endorse candidates when they do so as individuals, on their own, when they are clearly speaking as private citizens and not for their religious organization.

Beyond the organizations who are vehemently opposed to the FSFA, a LifeWay poll published in 2016 found that 79% of Americans do not believe it is appropriate for pastors to endorse political candidates during a public church service.

This, therefore, begs the question, is the repeal of the Johnson Amendment really worth fighting for year after year? Not only do the constant attacks against the amendment cost pro-Johnson Amendment organizations like the FFRF money in time and labor expended through research and lawsuits, but it similarly costs opponents of the amendment valuable donation dollars that could be put towards something more meaningful or substantial.

In 2012, Pew Research published an independent guide to the IRS rules on political activity by religious organizations. The Pew Research guide “Preaching Politics From the Pulpit: 2012 Guide to IRS Rules on Political Activity by Religious Organizations” delineates specifically what religious organizations legally can and cannot do within the context of the Johnson Amendment. According to the guide, the political campaign intervention prohibition does not restrict the discussion of any issues desired, as long as they are not linked to supporting or opposing any specific candidates, PACs, or political parties. It therefore seems that the potential gains for the freedom of speech from this bill passing would be very little compared to the thousands of dollars wasted each year on both sides of the fight on this issue.

Finally, not only is the purpose of the bill not supported by the American public, but the concerns raised by opponents of the bill are especially troubling and should certainly make everyone question whether repealing the Johnson Amendment will ultimately do more harm than good. The separation of church and state is a foundational principle of our nation, and beyond the need to protect that balance, the concern organizations like FFRF have about the potential for dark money in religious institutions seems a valid concern, particularly because they do not submit Form 990.

Ultimately, lawmakers in Washington will need to decide whether it is worth continuing to introduce this bill every year and cost both sides of the argument time and money either trying to fight or support the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Kate Lipman anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May 2021.

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The Comprehensive CREDIT Act: Taking Down Credit Barriers

May 14th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation

A pivotal financial moment, like finding a new job, buying a home, or taking out a student loan, a person's credit history can become an obstacle to achieving what they want to do. Though credit reports and scores can be effective in determining whether to lend money to a borrower, they also tend to dictate where people can work or live. The Comprehensive Credit Reporting, Enhancement, Disclosure, Innovation, and Transparency Act (“Comprehensive CREDIT Act”) would change who could use a consumer’s credit information to make determinations and what impact, and for how long, other factors could have on one’s score. Congress should enact this bill. Not only is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) outdated, but credit scores also tend to perpetuate discriminatory behaviors.

Credit Reports and Scores

A credit report provides a history of a consumer’s credit activity, including bill payments, current statuses of credit accounts, and adverse records like foreclosures, bankruptcies, and civil judgments. Credit reports also provide personal information like addresses, points of contact, and the consumer’s social security number. Three companies dominate the credit reporting industry: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Though they never receive a consumer’s outright consent to compile personal data, these three private companies are the main credit report providers. If there are errors on the credit report, the consumer (1) must have access to a credit report or find out about the error another way; and (2) notify the credit reporting agency rather than the creditor that reported the error. Once the consumer has done this, the credit reporting agency’s duties are triggered.

A credit score is an assessment of how likely it is a consumer will fulfill a debt obligation on time. Several factors go into determining a credit score: payment history, current debts, the types and number of accounts one currently has, how long those accounts have been open, and issues like debt collection or bankruptcy. Each of these factors, which are of varying weights, are used in a private company’s “scoring model” (i.e., a formula) to concoct a three digit number. Scores generally range from 300-850; the closer to 850, the more “creditworthy” a consumer is. Though credit reporting companies have disclosed generally which factors compose a credit score, they refuse to disclose the entire scoring model. Indeed, most use trade secret laws as a shield. Without disclosing the scoring model, credit reporting companies can engage in retaliatory and discriminatory behaviors. For example, predatory lending leads to Black and Hispanic homeowners to have higher mortgage payments. Because of historical racist policies leading to lower credit scores and less wealth among these populations, they are also more at risk of not being able to keep up with payments. The discrimination therefore feeds itself: borrowers with lower credit scores end up with even lower scores because of missed payments and foreclosures.

Who Uses Credit Scores?

Financial institutions are the biggest credit score users. Credit scores help them determine whether they should allow a consumer to obtain a line of credit or home mortgage, for example. The other major context where credit scores are important is employment. Employers conduct credit checks as part of a background check process. They usually look at the consumer’s entire credit report, not just her score. One argument is that if an individual is not “trustworthy” enough to make payments on time, they may not be trustworthy on the job, either. In certain positions, such as those involving accounting, this information would matter. But for most positions, the association between trustworthiness and creditworthiness can have prejudicial effects. (One study found that those with lower credit scores tend to have more “agreeable personalit[ies],” if anything.)

Comprehensive CREDIT Act

In January 2020, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Comprehensive CREDIT Act. The Comprehensive CREDIT Act, which amends the FCRA, proposes several reforms: (1) allowing for easier processes to fix credit report errors; (2) restricting use of credit scores for hiring and employment purposes; (3) providing relief for student loan borrowers with poor credit; (4) medical debt reporting wait times and bans for medically necessary procedures; and (5) reducing the amount of time adverse credit information remains on one’s credit report. Predictably, the House voted along party lines and passed the bill. However, it is now awaiting action in the Senate.

The chief reform involves what factors impact a consumer’s credit score. The Act proposes removing certain types of late payments, like student loan and medical bill payments. For the remaining delinquent or negative information, the reporting periods are shortened. For example, if an individual files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy can appear on a person’s credit report for seven to ten years. Under the Act, the period would be shortened to four to seven years. The Comprehensive CREDIT Act also requires that when there are discrepancies in reports provided to the consumer and the requestor, those discrepancies must be explained to the consumer.

The bill also addresses credit score use for employment screening. The bill prohibits employers from denying an applicant solely because of her credit score. The bill may not go far enough, though: the employer can still request the information, and the job applicant can approve its use. While the employer’s decision cannot be made based on that information, they will nevertheless still have access to it.

The bill’s opponents say that the proposed reforms will undermine confidence in credit scores, which are integral to our financial system. By softening the impacts some credit events have, a creditor may not have the full picture of an individual’s ability to pay. The effects could harm more consumers than protect them, as riskier activity may go unreported or not have as much as a determinative effect. To be sure, credit scores are a pillar of our financial system. Any change to them will have a significant impact on how the financial impact operates. Even so, credit scores continue to have a discriminatory effect on certain communities of borrowers and only perpetuate disparate impacts. Rep. Pressley’s bill focuses largely on that impact. The purpose of the bill is to minimize the impact of credit-related issues. A credit report currently only provides a black and white picture a person’s debts and credit history; a credit score is a numeric representative of that history. It does not show that a medical debt incurred was for a life-saving procedure or that a foreclosure stems from a predatory lending process. The impacts of those events stay with the creditor for some time, further impacting their lives even though they have overcome the event. For example, a poor credit report tip the scales in favor of other candidates, especially for competitive positions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is already creating significant financial implications. Inabilities to pay credit card bills because of unexpected income losses will affect consumers for years to come, even when the financial system recovers. Because so many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and because COVID-19 was largely unplanned for, consumers should not have to face the consequences. Provisions in Rep. Pressley’s bill would remedy some of those concerns. Now is clearly the time to enact the Comprehensive CREDIT Act.

Kathryn Buckley anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May 2021.

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The American Family Act is both Effective Policy and Politically Viable, Let’s Make it Law

January 24th, 2020 in Analysis, Federal Legislation

 With the 2020 Democratic Primary underway, candidates are engaged in a ‘race to the left’ defined by progressive proposals for expansive federal programs aimed to combat social, economic, and environmental injustices. Underpinning these ideas is the belief in government as an effective mechanism for improving the lives of Americans and a strong rebuke of the Republican tenants that small government, deregulation, and tax cuts are the appropriate tools to lift up the impoverished, marginalized and economically struggling.

 The American Family Act of 2019 (AFA) seems to be another progressive policy with noble aims, but dim prospects for bipartisan support. Most recently introduced in March 2019 by co-sponsors Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the AFA aims to reconfigure and expand the Child Tax Credit (CTC) to more effectively combat childhood poverty by increasing the financial support and removing the implicit work requirement. However, upon closer examination of its tax-focused policy structure and pro-family political implications, the AFA is distinct from other progressive Democratic proposals because it has the ability to transcend the traditional divisiveness surrounding social welfare legislation. Thus, if framed correctly and advocated for effectively, the AFA is an endangered species in today’s gridlocked and sharply divided Congress: a sweeping progressive policy with political viability.

Enacted in 1997, and expanded since with broad bipartisan support, the CTC is an anti-poverty measure that aims to mitigate the costs of raising children through a tax deduction of up to $2,000 per year for each eligible child. The CTC is administered primarily through a non-refundable tax credit, where a family’s income tax liability is reduced by the credit value. Families without taxable income—or whose taxes are below the credit value—are excluded from taking full advantage of the credit. The CTC partially accounts for this with a refundable option for these families. However, eligibility is still subject to a taxable earnings requirement of $2500. Furthermore, refundable credits are capped at 15% of taxable income and $1400 annually. These limitations exclude the poorest and most vulnerable children from the benefit. Roughly 27 million children under seventeen are ineligible for the full credit and many don’t qualify at all. Despite its shortcomings, the CTC functions as an effective tool for alleviating child poverty, lifting one in six previously poor children and their families out of poverty each year. 

Building on the existing CTC, the AFA aims to increase its impact through five major revisions. First, it creates an expanded credit for children under six (YCTC) of $300/month ($3,600/year). Second, the AFA increases the credit for children seven though sixteen to $250/month ($3,000/year). Third, the AFA returns the upper income eligibility to pre-Trump tax levels, with phase-out beginning at $75,000 for single and $110,000 for married families. This concentrates the benefit on the poor and increasingly strapped middle-class. Fourth, and most importantly for reducing rates of childhood poverty, both credits are fully refundable, eliminating the implicit work requirement. Finally, the AFA introduces a monthly advance to “smooth families’ incomes and spending levels over the course of a year,” while preserving the fundamental structure as a refundable tax credit.

Policy analysts predict the AFA would have powerful and lasting effects on reducing childhood poverty. A report by the Columbia Population Research Center found the AFA would reduce child poverty by 38 percent, and the duel-impact of increasing the credit and eliminating the earnings requirement would move approximately 4 million children out of poverty and 1.6 million out of deep poverty. In 2015 Congress—in a bipartisan action—commissioned a group of experts to produce “a nonpartisan, evidence-based report that would provide its assessment of the most effective means for reducing child poverty by half in the next 10 years.” The report found the most impactful programs involve cash assistance to families, and noted the most effective policy for poverty reduction would be a $2,700 unrestricted child allowance, which the authors report, would alone cut child poverty by a third. Cash subsidies to low income families are also credited for increasing investment in early child development, which links to better learning outcomes and future earning potential. Thus, the AFA implements evidence-based policy for combatting child poverty and promoting broader social and economic benefits for its beneficiaries. 

While much of these same benefits could be realized in other progressive policies (such as Universal Basic Income and Universal Childcare), theses government programs require strong Democratic congressional majorities. A closer examination of the political landscape surrounding tax credits and unpaid domestic labor reveals the critical ways the AFA’s form and function can attract Republican support.  

To understand the bipartisan potential, we must discuss why many conservatives traditionally support the CTC. Structured fundamentally as a tax credit, the CTC can be framed as a reduction of the federal government. The CTC is more palatable than other anti-poverty initiatives because it bypasses the need for a government program with an expansive bureaucratic administration and a redistributive tax for funding. While this framework is somewhat undermined by the (partially and conditionally) refundable nature, still the CTC addresses the widely supported issue of reducing childhood poverty through an initiative that shrinks the size of the federal government by taking in less tax revenue and not offering a new administrative service. Bennet’s description of the plan demonstrates his awareness of this political tightrope. In the AFA announcement he described it as a tax cut and credit, not a benefit or allowance. When questioned on his word choice he told reporters “I think you could describe it either way.”

Republicans can also frame the CTC and the AFA expansion as pro-family. Conservatives often decry the traditional family structure is under assault and argue programs like the childcare tax credit and proposals like universal childcare structurally nudge stay-at-home parents into the workforce by discounting their unpaid domestic labor. The AFA expansion gives parity in treatment of working and stay-at-home parents. The AFA’s significant credit increase could be framed as offering a simplified and neutrally applied childcare subsidy in lieu of other universal childcare proposals, which commentators on both sides of the debate have described as disadvantaging stay-at-home parents. The Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, supports expanding the CTC in much the same way the AFA does. It argues the increased credit should unite the left and right through its anti-poverty, pro-family message and impact. It asserts that neutral funds promote individual choice by giving parents the decision-making power to use funds to “help pay for child care for two-parent working families, or help a stay-at-home parent or a grandparent afford necessities such as diapers, transportation, access to the Internet, or educational materials for a child.” The Niskanen Center is not alone on the political right. During his campaign, Donald Trump’s Childcare Plan included a neutrally applied childcare deduction, “offering compensation for the job [stay-at-home parents are] already doing, and allowing them to choose the child care scenario that's in their best interest.” Further demonstrating the bipartisan nature of the fundamental concept and policy, Trump’s December 2017 tax plan expanded the annual CTC credit from $1000-$2000 dollars and modestly lowered the taxable income requirement.  

The AFA should pass because it is good data-backed policy, but unfortunately that is not enough. It is the policy’s structure rooted in the tax code, implications supporting stay-at-home-parents, and foundation in a popular bipartisan program that give the AFA an opportunity transcend partisan gridlock and pass through congress. 

Rebecca Gottesdiener anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May 2020.

 

 

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Sanctuaries With Guns? Turning The Rule Of Law Upside Down; by Delegate David Toscano (D-Charlottesville)

December 18th, 2019 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, Local Legislation, State Legislation

The Tazewell County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors recently jumped aboard the fast-moving “Second Amendment sanctuaries” train. In doing so, they embraced positions fundamentally at odds with state and federal constitutional law. Passing resolutions opposing certain laws or protesting governmental action is perfectly consistent with our traditions as a democracy, and no one should oppose the rights of citizens and their representatives to speak their minds. But Tazewell, and a number of other localities across Virginia, want to do much more. As Eric Young, an attorney and the county’s Administrator, put it, “our position is that Article I, Section 13, of the Constitution of Virginia reserves the right to ‘order’ militia to the localities; counties, not the state, determine what types of arms may be carried in their territory and by whom. So, we are ‘ordering’ the militia by making sure everyone can own a weapon." Other counties are announcing different schemes if gun safety laws are enacted: for example, the Culpeper County sheriff pledged to deputize “thousands of citizens” so they can own firearms.

Conservatives have railed for years against so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions,” criticizing localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration policies they deem heartless and ineffective. In the past year, however, some conservative lawmakers have taken a page from the progressive playbook, employing sanctuary imagery in opposition to gun safety legislation they deem to be an unconstitutional restriction of their rights under the Second Amendment.

The two approaches are classic cases of false equivalency. Jurisdictions that proclaim themselves sanctuaries for immigrants do not seek to violate the law; they simply refuse to engage local law enforcement in supporting actions that are federal responsibilities. They do not block the law, but simply insist that it should be enforced by those who have the responsibility to do so. For some proponents of so-called gun sanctuaries, however, the goal is to prevent enforcement of state law that the jurisdiction (not a court) deems unconstitutional.

After Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, fears of stricter gun regulations have inspired a rise in Second Amendment sanctuary activity in Virginia. Sanctuary efforts are driven mainly by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group to the right of the NRA.  My office’s analysis of recent news accounts indicates that before November 5, just one county had passed a resolution; since the election, at least 80 localities (counties, cities, or towns) have passed some form of sanctuary resolution, and as many as 34 more are considering their adoption.

 

A REBELLION EMERGES
Second Amendment sanctuaries exploded onto the national scene in early 2019 after newly-elected Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker pledged to pass gun safety measures in Illinois. Within months, 64 of the state’s 102 counties passed sanctuary resolutions. After New Mexico expanded background checks in 2019, 30 of 33 counties declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. Similar actions have either been taken or are under consideration in Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and now Virginia.

In some cases, these resolutions simply register an objection to any infringement on gun owners’ rights. But some Virginia localities have gone further, indicating that they will not enforce state law that they deem unconstitutional. Some proponents have even resurrected words like “nullification” and “interposition,” terms first used extensively by Southern secessionists prior to the Civil War, and more recently during the “massive resistance” to federal laws requiring desegregation in the 1960s. They argue that constitutional officers in Virginia, such as Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, have discretion not to enforce laws that they consider “unconstitutional.” In Virginia, there has always existed some debate about the independence of these officers, but, while they are creations of the Constitution, their duties are nonetheless "prescribed by general law or special act.” In short, sheriffs may be “constitutional officers,” but they are not “constitutional interpreters.”

FLASHPOINTS IN THE CULTURE WARS

The emergence of these sanctuaries demonstrates a growing rift in our nation. For residents in many rural areas of our country, guns are viewed as part of their way of life, one some fear that they will lose due to national and state changes. Most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, and any effort to limit anyone's access to firearms is perceived as a direct attack on many things that they hold dear. During the Obama years, the manufacture and purchase of firearms increased in dramatic numbers in part due to unfounded fears that the government would try to take away guns. Voting to declare themselves “sanctuaries” is a way they can reassert some control over events that they feel are putting them at risk.  For these communities, it matters little that reasonable gun safety proposals have largely passed constitutional muster, or that most proponents of these measures have no intention of taking anyone’s guns away unless it can be shown, in a court of law, that they are a danger to themselves or others.

At the same time, the general public is increasingly supportive of certain gun safety measures. An April 2018 poll found that 85 percent of registered voters support laws that would "allow the police to take guns away from people who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others" (71 percent "strongly supported"). These measures, called Emergency Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), or “red flag” laws, create judicial procedures by which persons with serious mental health challenges deemed a threat to themselves or others can have their weapons removed until their situation is resolved; courts can be engaged to protect the rights of the accused. And a March 2019 Quinnipiac poll reported that 93 percent of American voters support a bill that would require “background checks for all gun buyers.”

The energy behind support of gun measures like "red flag" laws is generated by concern for mass shootings, which are statistically rare but dramatic in their public impact, and the increasing numbers of gun-related suicides, which impact families and communities in quiet but devastating ways. On the latter front, there is a certain irony that some communities which have embraced Second Amendment sanctuary status also have higher gun suicide rates than other communities in their state. In Colorado, for example, nine of the 10 counties with the highest suicide rate over the past 10 years have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” many after the state passed an ERPO law in 2019. Of the 24 Colorado sanctuary counties for which suicide data is available, 22 (or 92 percent) had firearm suicide rates above the state average. Similarly, in Virginia, 36 of the 51 localities that have adopted a resolution to date and for which firearm suicide data is available have rates higher than the state median.

Virginia State Capitol, 1785
Architects: Thomas Jefferson & Charles-Louis Clérisseau

Recent polling in Virginia tells us that citizens of the Commonwealth are in step with the national trends documented above: Roanoke College’s Institute for Public Opinion Research recently released polling results which show that 84 percent of respondents favor universal background checks, and 74 percent support allowing a family member to seek an ERPO from a court.  Yet in the very same pool of respondents, 47 percent believe it is more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership.  The only way to make the math add up is to recognize that some people who strongly support Second Amendment rights may also support at least some reasonable gun safety measures—an approach the “sanctuary” advocates would never adopt.  But even former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have had problems with some of the arguments being advanced by proponents of sanctuaries. “Like most rights,” he wrote in District of Columbia et. al. v. Heller, “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."  In short, rights under the Second Amendment have never been absolute.  And under both the national and state Constitutions, our courts are tasked with determining the constitutionality of laws—not local sheriffs.

HOME RULE VS. DILLON RULE
Proponents of Second Amendment sanctuaries have another problem in Virginia; the Commonwealth is what we call a “Dillon Rule” state. This means that if a power is not specifically permitted to a locality, state law rules. Progressives have been especially critical of Dillon Rule arguments in years past, believing that they have prevented localities from enacting policies—from local minimum wage ordinances to gun prohibitions—that seek to go further from state law. They have rarely been concerned that more conservative localities, if granted greater “home rule,” might enact policies, such as environmental regulations or building codes, that are more lax than state law. The Second Amendment sanctuary rebellion may prompt some to reexamine their views about how much additional power should be granted to localities.

The Virginia state legislature will soon consider several major gun safety measures, and opponents will likely strongly resist; as one county supervisor has said, “[W]e need to show them a crowd like they have never seen. They need to be afraid and they should be afraid.” Legislators should always be attuned to any unintended consequences of the laws that they pass; that is one reason why we have a deliberative process before bills are passed. But to leave the determination of whether to enforce duly-passed laws totally in the hands of sheriffs and local officials with discretionary power to determine their constitutionality is to turn the rule of law upside down, and is a direct attack on republican government and the Constitution itself.

David Toscano has represented the 57th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2006, and from 20011-2019 Del. Toscano served as the House's Democratic Leader.  His forthcoming book is titled, In the Room at the Time: Politics, Personalities, and Policies in Virginia and the Nation.

 

A modified version of this opinion piece appeared on Slate.com.

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Stop the Clock: Implications of Switching Time Zones

April 20th, 2019 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, State Legislation

The holiday season is joyous for many reasons; from family, friends, and food, there is ample joy and merriment to go around. There is one aspect of the season that doesn’t match these factors; especially in New England – darkness. At the outset of winter, on December 21st each year, the sun sets in Boston at 4:11pm. There are many negative effects of darkness setting in before the end of the workday – with increased crime, traffic accidents, and seasonal depression being one of the most paramount. Boston’s sunset is not the earliest in the area, with municipalities in Maine experiencing sunsets earlier than 4pm; but it is the earliest of the major cities, beating out Buffalo, NY despite being further south.

Early sunsets do not become apparent in New England until clocks fall back in line with the change from Daylight Savings Time. Daylight Savings is a federal program instituted during World War II that the country has become accustomed to; the federal legislation only permits states to opt out of the program, but it does not allow states to make the program permanent, which would keep the clocks from falling back an hour. Hawaii and Arizona have opted out of the program – made available through the US Energy Policy Act of 2005, allowing any state that lies entirely within one time zone to opt out.

New England states, primarily Massachusetts and Maine at this point, have been considering a change to the Atlantic Time Zone

The Sacred Cod and House Clock
Massachusetts House Chamber

in order to increase the number of waking hours with sunlight. With a change to Atlantic Time, and subsequent opting out daylight savings, New England would be out of sync with the rest of the Eastern Time Zone from November to March, or the period in which clocks “fall back” in line with daylight savings in the Eastern Time Zone. A transfer to Atlantic Standard Time – which includes Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and eastern Canada – would mean jumping an hour ahead of the Eastern time zone from November to February. The time zones would align from March to October.

While the benefits of having an extended amount of light in the evening hours are readily apparent, there are several drawbacks that accompany a change. Early risers in particular, who are likely accustomed to the sun being out while they start their days have reason to complain. School aged children may be leaving to their schools in darkness in the morning, and businesses that transact on financial markets may be put out of sync with the markets they depend on.

If New England were to change to Atlantic time, there would be a two-step process. First, the interested states would have to decide to leave. Second, the states would have to consult the US Department of Transportation, the cabinet agency that regulates time zones. States, municipalities, business interests, and others would have the opportunity to weigh in during both steps.

There could be major issues with “commerce, trade, interstate transportation and broadcasting” if one state moves ahead one hour while its neighboring states remain in the Eastern Time Zone. It seems to be a requirement of widespread support and agreement for any change in this area to take effect. Lawmakers in Maine might support the change – in May 2017, Maine’s Senate passed a bill that would move the state to the Atlantic Time Zone — if approved by residents in a state-wide referendum. Maine conditioned the change, subject to their approval, on Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Some states seem to have considered the idea and decided against it, with the New Hampshire Senate voting against a bill that would move the state to the Atlantic Time Zone by a 16 to 7 vote; at the same time, the bill passed the house with a voice vote. While there has yet to be an affirmative move, the proponents of the change are enlivened by the action around the issue and are hopeful for the future.

Massachusetts established a commission to study the issue. In a neutral report neither supporting or disavowing the change, the commission stated its findings that "People tend to shop, dine out, and engage in other commercial activities more in after-work daylight,". . . "Year-round DST could also increase the state's (competitiveness) in attracting and retaining a talented workforce by mitigating the negative effects of Massachusetts' dark winters and improving quality-of-life." More daylight could also reduce street crime, on-the-job injuries and traffic fatalities, and boost overall public health, the commission found.

States in the Northeast seem intrigued by the change, but alterations of the particulars of their citizen’s days are deeply personal to their citizens may be a drastic change to take without widespread public support. In Arizona, the effects of their non-adherence to daylights savings time are apparent when the state is out of sync with the rest of the surrounding states – constant clarification of what time is in effect, setting different meeting times, etc. Results on an individual basis are a mixed bag, with businesses that are purely local and that thrive in the daylight being supporters of the longer day due to increased business, and those who constantly run up against timing differences by virtue of dealing with other regions.

It will be interesting to observe if public support for a time zone change increases as people in New England become aware that doing so is a possibility to increase their daylight hours in the depths of winter. In any case, it is clear that the states’ legislatures have identified it as a possible issue.

 

Drew Kohlmeier is a student in the Boston University School of Law Class of 2020 and is a native of Manhattan, KS, graduating with a degree in Biology from Kansas State University in 2016. Drew decided on Boston for law school due to his interest in health care and life sciences, and will be practicing in the emerging companies space focused on the life sciences industry following his graduation from BU.

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The US House Must Start Protecting Undocumented Minors

April 20th, 2019 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, Legislative Oversight

The 2018 midterm election should be considered less of a “blue wave” and more of a call to action made by the people of the United States to their House Representatives. The Trump administration has made many an egregious decision since 2017 and the Democrats of both the House and the Senate have unable to block such decisions due to their minority status. The Democrats must use their majority status in the House to actively combat the Trump administrations treatment of Latin American and other undocumented minors in detention.

Beginning in April 2018, Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy led to the separation of infants from their mother’s arms, children from their father’s reach, and siblings from their brother’s or sister’s hands. Family separation shocked the conscience of the nation and the outcry against the policy’s ramifications drove President Trump to sign an executive order “ending” family separation. Thousands of children remained in detention, separated from their parents, for months after the executive order. In June 2018, a U.S. District Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction against the government, requiring that children be returned to their parents within 30 days. Come late October, the Department of Homeland Security still had hundreds of separated children in its custody. The government’s failure to comply with the injunction filled public discourse with calls to act to free the children. Some of the parents of these children who have been deported to the countries they fled have made the soul-churning decision to leave their children in the United States because returning the children to their country of origin could mean death. Despite the alleged “end” of the family separation policy, 81 children have been separated from their families since President Trump’s executive order.

Another source of turmoil within the United States’ immigration system is the lack of representation for these children. Children, who do not speak English and are as young as 3 years old, are representing themselves against the U.S. government in immigration courts. They are being led to make decisions that are not in their best interest. For example, a 5 year old girl named Helen was told to sign her name on a form that waived away her rights to a Flores bond hearing, which would have guaranteed her a hearing in front of an immigration judge in far less time than she spent at a shelter, separated from her family. While organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, private firms, and law school institutions are providing legal services to help bring families back together, the number of children essentially being forced to represent themselves is too high.

The psychological toll on the detained children who were reunited with their families is immeasurable. There have been documented cases of young children, unable to understand why their parents suddenly disappeared from their lives, rejecting or distrusting their parents upon reunification. Other children live in fear of being taken again and anxiously cling to their parents. In December 2018, the nation took notice of the deaths of two undocumented children, one a 7 year old girl and the other an 8 year old boy, both from Guatemala, who died from medical complications while in Border Patrol custody.

More and more questions are being raised in Congress about how to address the turmoil of the Trump administration’s immigration landscape. Despite increased attention on this humanitarian crisis at the border, the problem has gotten worse over the past few months.  In fact, Boston University Law Professor Sarah Sherman-Stokes reports that a team of BU Law professors and students spent a week at the border in March.  They used sharpie markers to write parents' contact information on their children in case they were separated.  Despite this, the Trump White House seems to be now moving toward an even harder line toward migrants; complete with a purge of Homeland Security leadership.

At this point, there should be no compromise by Democrats regarding the treatment of undocumented children and their families. Now that Democrats have a deciding vote in the House, they must use that vote, the voice their constituents gave them--and especially their oversight powers--to protect the voiceless and vulnerable children in DHS custody.

This may be finally happening.  On April 17th, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, invited the architect of Trump's immigration policy Stephen Miller to appear before the Committee:

"I am offering you an opportunity to make your case to the Committee and the American people about why you -- and presumably President Trump -- believe it is good policy for the Trump Administration to take the actions it has, including intentionally separating immigrant children from their parents at the border to deter them from coming to the United States, transferring asylum seekers to sanctuary cities as a form of illegal retribution against your political adversaries, and firing top Administration officials who refuse orders to violate the law."

Miller is scheduled to appear before the Oversight Committee on May 1.

The safety of children should not be a partisan issue, but if anyone is going to act to ensure the safety of immigrant children, it should be the newly elected House of Representatives. The House should pressure the Senate and President to abide by the United Nation’s guidelines on the humane treatment of migrant children and their families and enforce their implementation. Any derogation leaves room for more horrifying tales of assault, abuse, trauma, and deaths of innocent children who were only trying to avoid such fates in their homelands. The House should also legislate to protect the Flores rights of unaccompanied minors and require that these minors be provided with representation in front of immigration courts.

The international community has condemned President Trump’s treatment of migrants, documented and undocumented, asylum-seeking and non-asylum-seeking, on several occasions, but some of the loudest condemnations fall upon the separation of families and treatment of children. Some governments and organizations have gone so far to call the family separation policy a humanitarian crisis and illegal. Let this moment in our nation’s history not go down as a complete humanitarian failure but as a showing of what the people can do to try and rectify the mistakes made by discriminatory policymaking.

 

Cassandra Castro will graduate from Boston University School of Law in 2020.

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The Future of Supervised Injection Sites in Massachusetts and Beyond

April 20th, 2019 in Analysis, Federal Legislation, State Legislation

With Massachusetts and the country facing a rising opioid overdose epidemic, lawmakers are looking to some controversial measures to curb overdose deaths. One of those measures being considered is supervised injection sites, also called safe injection sites or safe consumption spaces. Safe consumption spaces, of which there are 100 worldwide, are clean spaces where people can legally use pre-obtained drugs with supervision from healthcare professionals who aim to make injections as safe as possible while providing health care, counseling, and referral services to addicts. While safe injection sites have been successfully implemented in Canada, Australia, and Europe over the past 30 years, attempts to create such sites in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and more U.S. cities have not yet been successful. Beyond policy arguments as to whether these sites are effective, sites in the United States also face significant legal hurdles under federal law.

According to supporters of safe injection sites around the country and the world, the policy is an effective and relatively low-cost way to prevent overdose deaths and manage harm with no demonstrated consequences of increased drug use or increased crime. Opponents of safe injection sites, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, have pointed to increased opioid deaths in

The Massachusetts State House
Boston, 1787

recent years in Vancouver, which established its supervised consumption site Insite in 2003, to argue that safe injection sites are not actually effective in preventing overdose deaths. However, those arguments are misleading, as experts have stated that the increase in overdose deaths in Vancouver are due to the influx of fentanyl being added to drugs, and that Insite actually saw a 35% reduction in overdose deaths around the facility in the two years after it opened. While there are also studies questioning the efficacy of safe consumption sites—calling into question whether they have a significant impact on reducing deaths and reaching a significant amount of drug users—even the negative studies generally criticize safe consumption sites as being relatively ineffective as opposed to actively harmful. There are dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies that have found that safe injection sites actually do significantly benefit those who are addicted to opioids and prevent opioid deaths. Notably, no death has ever been reported in an injection site, and a review of studies concluded that injection sites were associated with less outdoor drug use and did not appear to have any negative impacts on crime or drug use.

Despite the strong evidence backing the societal benefits of implementing and supporting safe injection sites, the policy faces significant legal and political obstacles in the United States. Perhaps the biggest hurdle that advocates of safe injection sites face is the potential legal liability of such sites under federal law and opposition from the Justice Department. The Controlled Substances Act makes it illegal to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance,” as well as to knowingly manage such a place. The plain language of that law may render implementation of safe injection sites impossible without some change or exception carved out in federal law.

However, advocates of safe injection sites do have a glimmer of hope that, once the first U.S. site is created, it will pass judicial muster through a creative legal argument proposed by law professor and drug policy expert Alex Kreit. In his paper, Kriet argues that a provision in the Controlled Substances Act providing immunity to state and local officials who commit drug crimes while enforcing local laws could protect safe injection sites from a crackdown by the federal government. Kreit has stated that the infrequently cited rule has previously been used in situations where authorities have seized marijuana and then returned it in states where marijuana has been legalized. Under this theory, those involved in safe injection sites would be protected so long as they were acting in accordance with a city ordinance or state law supporting safe injection sites. Other experts have expressed skepticism that such an argument would pass muster, however, with some stating that Kreit’s argument is a “stretch,” and that any path toward legality for safe injection sites lies in convincing the federal government not to target safe injection sites on public health grounds.

If cities and states cannot find a legal workaround protecting those involved with the safe injection sites, advocates likely face an uphill battle in convincing their communities and the Justice Department to accept injection sites. Attempts at establishing sites have not been politically palatable, as demonstrated by efforts in San Francisco and Boston. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed supervised drug consumption sites in the state and went so far as to describe it as “enabling illegal drug use.” In Massachusetts, in addition to Governor Baker’s opposition to the idea of safe injection sites, the Senate ultimately stripped a provision authorizing safe injection sites from its comprehensive opioid bill this past legislative session, instead replacing the pilot program with a commission to study the feasibility of establishing such sites. In addition to opposition from state Governors and a lack of strong state government support, it seems highly unlikely that the current federal administration would turn a blind eye to safe injection sites on public health grounds. In addition to a statement from the Vermont U.S. Attorney’s Office criticizing the policy and affirming that the United States Attorney would impose ramifications under federal law, there have been multiple other instances indicating the administration’s hostility towards safe injection sites and similar policies. In August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote an op-ed in the New York Times opposing safe injection sites and emphasizing the fact that they violate federal law. The Justice Department also “promise[d] [a] crackdown” on supervised injection facilities on an NPR radio show.

While there is scientific and global community support for safe injection sites, their future in the United States is still unclear, especially under the current federal administration. Until there are more assurances that sites could operate without intervention from federal law enforcement, it seems that most cities and states that have been at the forefront of the push for safe injection sites do not have the political will or capital to open the country’s first site and become the guinea pig of the movement. Philadelphia, however, may be the one city willing to go first. In August, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said that Rosenstein’s opposition and warnings from the Justice Department would not prevent Philadelphia officials from further exploring the idea. Currently, Philadelphia seems to be going forward with its plan to allow, but not publicly fund, a non-profit site called Safehouse, which could serve as a jumping off point for litigation determining the legality of the sites and potentially creating more certainty for other interested cities and states. As for Massachusetts, it seems unlikely that the Commonwealth will be establishing any safe injection sites in the near future, though the members of the commission created in last session’s opioid bill will no doubt keep a close eye on Philadelphia as its safe injection site plan comes to fruition.

Chloe Aubuchon graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish in 2017 and anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May 2020

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