Washington, DC | www.adc.org | January 13, 2016 – Last night, President Barack Obama gave the final State of the Union address of his presidency. The speech was inspiring: celebrating America for its diversity and calling on Americans to work together to fight discrimination and protect common interests.
The speech addressed many important issues, including the need to fix immigration, combat xenophobia and Islamophobia, improve education, close the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, and protect the right to vote. Below, we have included some of the highlights from President Obama’s speech as well as our commentary on these issues.
President Obama: “And I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done: fixing a broken immigration system…”
ADC’s commentary: Congress has failed to pass immigration reform during the President’s two terms in office. President Obama has made efforts to remedy this failure through executive actions, but there is still much work to be done in terms of fixing our immigration system. The President could start by ending the immigration raids, such as those conducted earlier this month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.
Combating xenophobia and welcoming refugees:
President Obama: America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights.
…Our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.
ADC’s commentary: While the President celebrated diversity and rebuked the xenophobic rhetoric that politicians have used to justify their discriminatory position of rejecting refugees from Syria and Iraq, ADC is disappointed that President Obama did not once even mention the plight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The President’s failure to expressly voice support for refugees fleeing persecution in the Middle East is particularly concerning in light of the anti-refugee legislation currently being considered in Congress. Before the winter holidays, the House of Representatives passed an anti-refugee bill, H.R. 4038, which discriminates against Syrian and Iraqi refugees on the basis of their national origin. The effect of this bill is to block refugees coming to the U.S. by adding more hurdles to an already stringent process.
President Obama: [W]e sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.
We just need to call them what they are: killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.
…We need to reject politics — any politics—that targets people because of race or religion.
When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is, it’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country.
ADC’s commentary: ADC applauds President Obama for denouncing discrimination against Muslims as both an absolute wrong and as an ineffective tool in the fight against terrorism. However, we remain concerned that the FBI unfairly targets the Arab and Muslim communities in its efforts to combat extremism. Programs such as the FBI’s new, web-based “Don’t Be a Puppet,” promote harmful stereotypes that link Arabs and Muslims with terrorists.
Justice for American victims of terrorism:
President Obama: If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden…When you come after Americans, we go after you. And it may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits.
ADC’s commentary: We welcome President Obama’s commitment to protecting Americans, however, ADC and the Arab American community have waited 30 years to get justice for Alex Odeh, who was killed in a terrorist attack on ADC’s West Coast Regional Office in 1985. We do have long memories, and we urge the Department of Justice to uphold this commitment to justice by prosecuting Mr. Odeh’s killers.
President Obama: We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.
ADC’s commentary: Education reform must ensure that children from recent immigrant families who are learning English as a second language are not neglected in our schools. These children must have modern and culturally appropriate language materials to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage to those who speak English at home. ADC has been working with a diverse group of civil rights organizations and allies in Congress to help secure protections and the inclusion of English Language Learners in Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in order to ensure that these children are provided with the tools necessary to succeed.
President Obama: I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies. There’s a better way.
ADC’s commentary: We applaud the President’s call to close the U.S. Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s time to make this talk a reality and stop detaining people indefinitely without due process.
Protecting the right to vote:
President Obama: We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now.
This is America. We want to make it easier for people to participate…Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
ADC’s commentary: Since the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) for the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, ADC and a diverse coalition of civil rights organizations have been urging Congress to pass legislation restoring the VRA and protect voting rights. We need better Federal oversight of elections and voting procedures to ensure that minority communities are protected from disriminatory changes to voting procedures. We need a modernized Voting Rights Act.