When Donald Trump stood on a stage in Cleveland to accept the Republican nomination for the presidency in July 2016, he declared he would be the voice of the American people, the sole champion for the vulnerable and forgotten.
“I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens,” he said, before adding, “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
After entering the Oval Office, however, the president didn’t embark on what could have been the greatest construction project of his life: Building a more just America for everyone. Instead, he launched a government-wide assault on the very policies and programs that protect those who “cannot defend themselves.”
The writing, of course, was already on the wall for those who chose to see it.
As a candidate, Trump may have made vague, intermittent pledges to protect those who faced discrimination – like when he promised to be “a real friend” to the LGBT community – but he was mostly speaking the language of a distinctly racist and misogynistic white nationalist movement known as the alt-right.
And that’s the language that foretold the nature of his presidency.
Trump has, in fact, spent its first year promoting the alt-right’s policy agenda by systematically dismantling hard-won civil rights protections and reversing numerous initiatives of President Barack Obama – all while continuing to use his megaphone to sow racial and ethnic divisions.
This assault on civil rights – and the American values that underpin them – is far-reaching and dangerous.
Here are 10 ways that he, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials have undermined protections for the most vulnerable people in America.
- Promoting a white nationalist agenda
- Slashing civil rights enforcement
- Revving up the deportation machine
- Banning Muslims
- Attacking voting rights
- Shredding LGBT protections
- Encouraging police abuses
- Reviving debtors’ prisons
- Undermining public education
- Eroding the rights of students with disabilities
Promoting a white nationalist agenda
“You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
— President Donald Trump on the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia
Aug. 15, 2017
From the moment he glided down an escalator to announce his presidential bid in June 2015, Trump ran a campaign that electrified white nationalists who saw in him a kindred spirit – a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country.
Trump already had a long and well-documented history of racist comments and acts, including his real estate company’s discriminatory treatment of black people in the 1970s and his later characterization of them as lazy. He had catapulted himself onto the political scene, in fact, as a leader of the “birther” movement – a purveyor of the falsehood that Obama was not a U.S. citizen but rather a Kenyan by birth.
True to form, during his announcement speech, he described Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.” The campaign that followed was the most xenophobic and racist by a major party nominee in modern U.S. history. He called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He claimed a U.S.-born Latino judge in one of his civil cases couldn’t be impartial because he was “Mexican.” He got into a verbal war with the Muslim-American parents of a fallen Army captain.
As president, Trump has done nothing to dispel the faith that white nationalists placed in him. Instead, he has reinforced it at virtually every turn.
While his predecessor took many actions to expand civil rights protections and the enforcement of those rights, Trump’s words and actions have invigorated a deeply racist, misogynistic movement that opposes equal rights for those who aren’t what they consider white.
From the earliest days of his administration, Trump installed a handful of key advisers who were closer to the radical right than to the mainstream. Stephen Bannon, who bragged about turning Breitbart News into “the platform for the alt-right” under his leadership, had Trump’s ear as chief strategist until his departure in late August.
Sebastian Gorka, a man who associated with neo-Nazis in his native Hungary, served as an adviser until late August. And Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, was a one-time acolyte of anti-Muslim extremist David Horowitz and a close ally of anti-immigrant hate groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
When a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in deadly violence in August, it took two days for Trump to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Then, during a contentious exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Aug. 15, Trump claimed there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis marching with torches in Charlottesville.
Days later, Trump lamented the loss of “beautiful statues and monuments” that honor Confederate heroes such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose statue was the focus of the Charlottesville demonstration. Trump equated Confederate commanders with Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves.
The president’s remarks about Charlottesville were praised by former Klan chief David Duke, who attended the rally. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” he tweeted. Earlier, Duke had spoken at the rally, proclaiming, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
Later that month, the racism at the core of Trump’s agenda was laid bare when he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was awaiting a prison sentence for defying a court order that barred him from racially profiling Latinos. As a result of the Aug. 25 pardon, Arpaio, who rose to national prominence for his anti-immigrant tactics in Maricopa County, will never be held accountable for his years of unconstitutional conduct. Trump’s pardon sent an unmistakable message: The president of the United States had the backs of officials engaging in illegal, anti-immigrant crusades.
Despite the demands of the presidency, Trump also routinely found time to verbally attack and denigrate black athletes in 2017, even withdrawing a White House invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors after the team’s superstar point guard, Stephen Curry, who is black, suggested he wouldn’t attend.
Trump railed against NFL players, approximately 70 percent of whom are black, for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans. During a rally in Alabama, he called on NFL team owners – an overwhelmingly white group – to take action against kneeling players.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, they say get that son of a bitch off the field right now – he’s fired! Fired!” Trump said. “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage.”
In January, during a meeting with members of Congress, he questioned why the country accepted immigrants from the supposedly “shithole countries” of Africa and said he preferred immigrants from countries like Norway.
Slashing civil rights enforcement
“What do you have to lose?”
— Donald Trump to black and Hispanic voters at Akron, Ohio campaign rally
Aug. 22, 2016
For the better part of a decade, the Obama Justice Department waged a legal battle over Texas’ voter ID law, arguing that the law not only discriminated against minority voters but was written to intentionally discriminate against minorities.
In late February, just a month into the Trump administration, the Justice Department withdrew its claim that the law was intentionally discriminatory. It was an action that not only signaled a change in the case but a sweeping effort to curtail federal civil rights enforcement.
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DOJ attorneys have been instructed to seek out-of-court settlements in civil rights cases rather than pursue consent decrees, a much more powerful tool that provides ongoing court oversight.
“They [consent decrees] are a key to civil rights enforcement,” William Yeomans, a 26-year veteran of the DOJ, told ProPublica.
When he was a senator from Alabama, Sessions, however, warned that consent decrees “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” Unsurprisingly, Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees that resulted from Obama administration investigations into police brutality and other law enforcement abuses, potentially stymying much-needed reforms.
In addition, the DOJ has rescinded several significant guidances, documents released during the Obama administration to clarify the legal obligations of school districts, state education agencies and many other public entities. In doing so, the Trump administration has sent the signal that vulnerable people – such as transgender students, sexual assault victims and workers with disabilities – have fewer protections than they did a year ago and that the administration is less likely to try to vindicate their rights. A leaked Sessions memo shows that the attorney general does not believe that any guidance is safe.
Civil rights enforcement was also targeted at other agencies. The Labor Department’s fiscal 2018 plan would disband the division that for 40 years investigated discrimination claims against federal contractors and fold it into the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was also on the block for cuts that threaten to slash the number of staffers who investigate school discrimination complaints. The office has been directed to investigate individual complaints rather than systemic ones. The Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program was also targeted for elimination. The program focuses on pollution threats that primarily affect minority communities.
Overall, the Trump administration attempted to dismantle and loosen civil rights enforcement across numerous agencies – an effort that offers a definitive answer to a question Trump posed to black and Hispanic voters at a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio.
“What do you have to lose?” he asked.
For anyone who cares about civil rights, quite a lot.
Revving up the deportation machine
“The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people … they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.”
— President Donald Trump at Youngstown, Ohio rally
July 26, 2017
Trump, whose signature campaign promise was to “build a big, beautiful wall” at the Mexican border, was quick to enact executive orders on immigration, signing them during his first week in office. Since then, the administration’s supercharged deportation program has changed the lives of millions of people and eroded civil rights protections in numerous ways.
A surge in immigration arrests that began with the January executive orders has reversed the decline that began when Obama signed presidential directives on immigration in 2014, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
“These results clearly demonstrate profound, positive impact of the EO [executive order],” ICE said recently on its website.
It was indeed a profound impact, but not so positive.
As president, Trump has continued to inveigh against Latino immigrants, conjuring images of out-of-control street gangs terrorizing U.S. communities. In July, the president warned of Latino gangs that target “young, beautiful” girls and “slice them and dice them with a knife.” He lauded the federal government for “throwing MS-13 the hell out of here so fast.” But, in reality, ICE did little of that. There are very few migrants in U.S. jails and prisons linked to criminal street gangs.
Agents instead sought and detained hundreds of thousands of nonviolent, noncriminal immigrants. They weren’t the “bad hombres” Trump pledged to eject during the campaign. During the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, ICE recorded a 150 percent increase in the arrests of immigrants who had not been convicted of crimes unrelated to their legal status.
Across the country, federal agents reportedly violated both due process rights and basic decency with the new “anything goes” enforcement style. Meanwhile, some detainees’ partners and children – many of whom are U.S. citizens – were left with depleted incomes and little recourse but to leave the country or live in poverty.
Trump then ended Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy in September. More than 700,000 young people, who were brought to the United States as children, were told they may be deported.
Trump wasn’t finished. Two months later, the administration moved to end a special status for hundreds of thousands of people from Central American and Caribbean countries who came to the United States to seek refuge from danger in their countries. The New York Times revealed that Trump complained to his aides in June about foreigners allowed to come to this country, saying refugees from Haiti “all have AIDS.”
Now, the latest data reveal the effect of a tumultuous year in immigration policy. The rate of asylum denials is rising, while legal representation for asylees is falling.
The Department of Homeland Security moved to deport 243,916 people in FY 2017. And backlogs in the immigration courts are growing, which could mean longer detentions and worse conditions in already remote and shadowy DHS facilities, especially for children, who often lack the resources to get representation.
As Trump prepared to enter his second year in office, the administration doubled down on its anti-immigrant crusade. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that she was asking the DOJ whether it could seek criminal charges against local officials in “sanctuary cities,” where police departments do not assist federal deportation efforts.
Trump’s actions have sparked a broad backlash by civil rights advocates across the country. The SPLC, for example, launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, a project that aims to safeguard due process by providing pro bono legal representation to immigrants held in detention facilities in the Southeast.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
— President Donald Trump at Mount Pleasant, S.C., campaign rally
Dec. 7, 2015
During his fearmongering campaign, Trump promised a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Trump moved quickly after taking office. Among his first steps was the signing of an executive order barring most travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. The order also suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days.
The Muslim ban wasn’t quite as extensive as Trump had promised, but it still represented an unprecedented act that reflected the new president’s apparent contempt for one of the most fundamental tenets of U.S. democracy: freedom of religion.
Confusion reigned in airports across the country as officials attempted to enforce the order. Protesters and human rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, descended on airports to support travelers detained and separated from friends and family. The order was blocked nationwide by a federal court in Seattle, a ruling supported by the SPLC in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The brief summed up this attack on civil rights: By singling out Muslims, Trump violated the Constitution’s prohibition of discrimination based on religion.
The administration has repeatedly attempted to revamp the executive order to pass constitutional muster while living up to a campaign promise rooted in bigotry. Each version of the ban has been met with legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the third iteration to take effect as the challenges move through the courts and, most likely, back to the Supreme Court for a definitive ruling on the ban’s constitutionality.
Given the rhetoric of his campaign and his roster of advisers, it was little surprise that Trump attempted to curtail Muslim travel to the United States.
His first national security adviser, the now-disgraced Michael Flynn, had a long history of promoting anti-Muslim propaganda and working with hate groups that vilify Muslims. He served, for example, on the advisory board member for ACT for America, a group The Atlantic called the “largest grassroots purveyor of anti-Muslim bigotry.” Its founder, Brigitte Gabriel, had boasted during the campaign that her group had “played a fundamental role” in shaping Trump’s policies. In February, she distributed a photo of herself with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and in March, she found herself welcomed to the White House for a visit.
As the administration has attempted to counter the legal challenges to the Muslim ban, the president has continued to fan the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry.
In late November, he shared three videos online that allegedly showed Muslims engaging in violence. The highly inflammatory videos were retweeted from Britain First, an anti-Muslim hate group whose leaders have been prosecuted for incitement and hate crimes.
Britain Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Trump for retweeting propaganda videos pushed by a group that “seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions.” His actions, however, earned praise by former Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke, who tweeted, “Thank God for Trump! That’s why we love him!”
Attacking voting rights
“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”
— President Donald Trump in tweets
Jan 25, 2017
After Trump’s shocking 2016 electoral victory, he took to Twitter to claim that “millions of people” had voted illegally, costing him the popular vote. He repeated the lie during a meeting with lawmakers in January, leading NBC News to rank it as one of Trump’s “biggest whoppers of 2017.”
The claims were just the latest instance of Trump perpetuating lies about “rigged” elections and vast voter-fraud conspiracies. Years earlier, for example, he used Twitter to claim that “polls have shown that DEAD PEOPLE voted for President Obama overwhelmingly.”
Numerous studies have shown that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States. Researchers at the Brennan Center have found that it is rarer than death by lightning. And Trump’s own lawyers contended that “the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake” in a court filing opposing a third party candidate’s recount effort in Michigan.
Despite these findings, Trump used the power of the executive branch to launch an ill-fated investigation into voter fraud – an effort that the SPLC and other civil rights groups saw as a vehicle to promote voter ID laws and other restrictions that suppress the votes of minorities and the poor.
In May, Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, naming Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as its vice chair and de facto chief. Kobach is a longtime lawyer for the Federation for American Immigration Reform – an anti-immigrant hate group with ties to white nationalists. He is a leader in the movement to suppress the votes of minorities and has a track record of aggressively prosecuting voter fraud where none exists.
As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach began removing people from his state’s voter rolls in 2015, making anyone who did not provide proof of citizenship within 90 days ineligible to vote. “It’s no big deal,” he once said, according to The New York Times Magazine. “Nobody’s being disenfranchised.”
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a fellow at the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council, was also named to the commission. A 2005 report found that Blackwell was at fault for “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio” during the 2004 election.
As the commission’s vice chairman, Kobach asked states to turn over voter information, including names, addresses, birth dates, the last four digits of Social Security numbers, political affiliation, voting histories and felony convictions. Twenty states refused to provide the data, as others requested time to determine if they could provide it. In December, a U.S. appeals court rejected a watchdog group’s legal challenge to the data request.
In early 2018, the administration dissolved the commission, citing the refusal of several states to produce voter information and the prospect of costly legal battles. In a tweet, Trump placed the blame on “mostly Democrat States” that “refused to hand over data.”
“They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally,” he tweeted. “System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.”
Shredding LGBT protections
“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
— President Donald Trump in tweets
July 26, 2017
On the morning of July 26, 2017, President Trump fired off a series of tweets that kicked-started the day’s news cycle with a threat to discriminate against transgender Americans serving openly in the military or hoping to join its ranks.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump tweeted. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
A month later, Trump released a memo formalizing his reversal of an Obama-era order allowing transgender people to serve. Top military officials, however, resisted from the beginning, and the ban has not taken effect. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September: “I believe any individual who meets the physical and mental standards, and is worldwide deployable and is currently serving, should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve.”
The same day Trump tweeted about transgender service members, the Department of Justice intervened in an employment lawsuit, arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was an abrupt and wide-ranging attack on LGBT rights, but one that was not out of character for an administration that has vigorously worked to roll back protections for the LGBT community.
In February, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education withdrew protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. In April, the Justice Department dropped its Obama-era lawsuit against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which required people to use restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate.
Days before Trump announced the military would not accept transgender recruits, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech behind closed doors to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBT hate group. It was later revealed that Sessions told attendees that the Justice Department was nearing completion of its “religious liberty” guidance.
When the guidance was released in October, it offered broad exemptions to people, companies and government contractors who cite their personal religious beliefs to avoid complying with anti-discrimination laws. A month earlier, the DOJ filed an amicus brief in support of a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The brief sides with the ADF, which is representing the baker.
Sessions also issued a memo in October to department heads and U.S. attorneys asserting that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect transgender workers from employment discrimination. The same month, Trump spoke at the Family Research Council’s (FRC) Values Voter Summit. The FRC is a hate group that has relentlessly vilified LGBT people – portraying them as sick, vile, incestuous, violent, perverted and a danger to children and the nation.
Trump’s appearance not only lent the legitimacy of the White House to a hate group, it exemplified the access extremists have in the Trump administration. FRC President Tony Perkins, who has falsely claimed that gay men are more likely than straight men to be pedophiles, has boasted: “I’ve been to the White House I don’t know how many more times in the first six months this year than I was during the entire Bush administration.”
At the conclusion of 2017, it was apparent that the administration’s attacks on LGBT rights may not always meet with immediate success – courts, for example, blocked the transgender military ban – but the attacks will keep coming. Trump may have pledged on the campaign trail to be a “real friend” to the LGBT community, but his administration’s first-year record demonstrates it may have been the emptiest of all of his campaign promises.
Encouraging police abuses
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, O.K.?”
— President Donald Trump in Brentwood, N.Y.
July 28, 2017
Though much of the United States is safer now than it has been in decades, Trump continued to create his own, alternate reality in 2017. In his inauguration address, the president spoke of the need to curb the “American carnage” brought on, in part, by crime.
Later that month, he appointed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to carry out that mission. The implications for policing and criminal justice in America have been huge.
Sessions hinted early on that consent decrees with police departments with histories of racial discrimination and police abuse would soon be up for review. He offered a change of course for the Justice Department at his Senate confirmation hearing. “I think there is concern that good police officers can be sued when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” he said. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers.”
Sure enough, in March, Sessions ordered a review of consent decrees that resulted from Obama administration investigations into police brutality and other law enforcement abuses in major U.S. cities.
Police departments in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and others – places with records of severe rights violations – were given the opportunity to dodge accountability for the killings of black men by officers and deeply ingrained, institutional racism. The Justice Department’s own investigations had revealed their culpability and demanded reforms. Now, Sessions offered them some relief.
The attorney general didn’t stop with that. Despite bipartisan opposition, he revived a federal civil asset forfeiture program that is widely viewed as abusive, despite evidence that it does little to curtail crime. Local police departments will likely jump at the chance to resume taking advantage of the program, called Equitable Sharing, that incentivizes law enforcement to put money – often seized from people never even charged with a crime – over public safety. Sessions also continued his bizarre crusade against states that have legalized marijuana.
Trump, for his part, outright endorsed police violence – just as he had encouraged violence against hecklers at his campaign rallies. Before a crowd of police officers in Brentwood, New York, in July he mused about the moment a suspect is led into the back seat of a police car. An officer in that situation might protect the person’s head as they sit down. “I said, you can take the hand away, OK?” Trump said. The officers in attendance laughed.
Reviving debtors’ prisons
“I don’t like poverty. Usually, there’s a reason for poverty. Do you want someone who gets to be president and that's literally the highest paying job he’s ever had?”
— Donald Trump in The New York Times
Nov. 28, 1999
The Trump phenomenon flummoxed many a pundit, the way the New York City billionaire, known for his braggadocio and wildly ostentatious displays of wealth, rode to victory in part by appealing to masses of rural folks struggling with economic stagnation and poverty.
But did anyone really believe Trump the plutocrat would do much of anything to help the poor and the economically distressed?
A year after the inauguration, Trump’s true Gilded Age colors are shining through. Not only did he sign a tax cut bill that favors the richest Americans and will likely result in deep cuts to safety-net programs, the administration is also doing its part to punish low-income people for the crime of being poor – and violating their civil rights in the process.
Near the end of last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions retracted an Obama-era guidance to state courts that was meant to end debtors’ prisons, where people are locked up because they’re too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses.
Debtors’ prisons – relics of the past that were outlawed two centuries ago in America – impose devastating human costs. They force poor people to forego the basic necessities of life to avoid incarceration. They waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts, pushing them further into a spiral of poverty, job loss and homelessness. They also create an unconstitutional, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same offenses as the rich, just because they are poor.
Perhaps Sessions likes debtors’ prisons because President Obama didn’t. In 2015, the Obama Justice Department issued a 185-page report in its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, following the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown. The report exposed how Ferguson police sought to advance the “City’s focus on revenue rather than ... public safety needs,” leading to the routine jailing of poor people to elicit court fine and fee payments.
Sessions’ action won’t be the last word on debtors’ prison.
Chiraag Bains, former senior counsel in the DOJ’s civil rights division, wrote in The New York Times that the guidance “helped jump-start reform around the country.”
Indeed, there’s a strong national movement to eliminate court practices that punish the poor unfairly. The Southern Poverty Law Center in recent years, for example, has scored a number of legal victories that closed debtors’ prisons in Alabama and Louisiana and stopped practices that amounted to the unconstitutional extortion of payments to private probation companies as well as city courts.
And in December, the SPLC and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center reached an agreement with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety that will reinstate more than 100,000 driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of traffic tickets. As part of the agreement, the state will no longer suspend licenses for failure to pay fines.
But by rescinding the federal guidance on debtors’ prisons, the Trump administration is making clear that it condones an American justice system that lets the well-off buy their freedom while poor people are locked up or lose their driver’s licenses simply because they can’t afford to pay money to courts.
Undermining public education
“I love the poorly educated.”
— Donald Trump in Las Vegas
Feb. 23 2016
As early as 2015, Donald Trump took aim at the civil rights of schoolchildren by calling for the dismantling of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
“Department of Education should be disbanded not expanded. Focus on local education,” he tweeted.
As president, Trump began making good on the threat, targeting an agency that has helped, among others, children in low-income schools, kids with disabilities and other young people historically underserved by their local schools.
Trump’s education secretary, billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, has overseen an effort to shrink the agency, proposing to slash $9.2 billion from its budget, which would eliminate college-prep programs for poor children. By November 2017, the agency had shed nearly 8 percent of its staff, or roughly 350 employees. DeVos also has proposed cutting staff from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which addresses discrimination complaints that are at record highs. The acting assistant secretary for civil rights directed her staff to pursue only individual complaints, rather than systemic relief that could help hundreds or thousands of students, in direct contravention of how the Obama administration had used its enforcement authority.
The administration’s proposed 2018 budget allocated $250 million for a nationwide school voucher program that would divert millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools, undercutting public schools and the right to an equal and accessible education for all. The proposal was made despite of years of research showing that private school vouchers are neither an effective nor equitable way of improving the nation’s schools.
During a congressional hearing in May, DeVos refused to say if federal funds would be denied to private schools that discriminate against admitting students based on their sexual orientation, race or disabilities.
“I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students,” Rep. Katherine Clark said at the hearing.
DeVos also rescinded Obama-era DOE guidance documents that protected students with disabilities from discrimination. In February, for example, she withdrew the department’s policy of directing schools not to discriminate against students on the basis of their transgender status. In September, she scrapped rules outlining how schools should investigate sexual misconduct, claiming, among other things, that they did not sufficiently take into account the rights of the accused. As part of the justification for doing so, the acting assistant secretary said that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations come from women who were drunk when the incident happened and filed a complaint later as revenge for a bad breakup.
DeVos also has proposed eliminating department priorities related to school diversity, community engagement and access to technology – priorities that help ensure schools are inclusive, welcoming and diverse environments that benefit all children.
In the wake of policies and practices that threaten to deny students the opportunity for a good education, it seems clear that Trump wasn’t joking when he famously proclaimed on the campaign trail, “I love the poorly educated.”
Eroding the rights of students with disabilities
“I think that is a matter that is best left to the states.”
— Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on federal regulations protecting students with disabilities from discrimination
Jan. 17, 2017
During her Senate confirmation hearings to become secretary of education, Betsy DeVos did not seem to understand that public schools are required to provide an integrated, free appropriate public education to children with disabilities. The telling moment occurred when she was asked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law requiring such supports and services to be provided to every qualified disabled K-12 student in the country.
“I think that is a matter that is best left to the states,” she said of the law.
Sen. Tim Kaine’s follow-up question outlined the potentially devastating fallout from such a position.
“So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good and, what then, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how kids are being treated?” Kaine asked.
DeVos later clarified that she may have been confused about the law but pledged to be “very sensitive” to the needs of students with disabilities. As someone who would ultimately join the cabinet of a president who mocked a New York Times reporter with a disability during a campaign appearance, it was a promise that – to use Trump’s parlance – deserved to be taken with a huuuge grain of salt.
Unsurprisingly, it was a promise that would be broken.
Under DeVos’ direction, the Department of Education (DOE) rescinded 72 guidance documents in 2017 that were designed to help parents, educators and advocates understand how federal law protects services and accommodations for students with disabilities. Although the DOE claimed the documents were “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective,” some of them – including one that explained how new regulations would balance family rights and access to public benefits – were current.
Before rescinding the documents, the Education Department sought input from disability rights advocates and affected communities. They advised against withdrawing the guidances, but they were ignored.
The Obama-era guidance documents had also affirmed that charter schools are subject to the same civil rights laws as other public schools, including prohibitions on discriminating against children with disabilities. The administration’s proposed 2018 budget allocated $250 million for a school voucher program that would divert millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools, which are not required to comply with IDEA or other federal disability protections in the same way as public schools.
The first year of the Trump presidency also coincided with the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – an anniversary U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters marked with a speech on the House floor in July. Standing beside a photo taken of Trump as he flailed his arms during his derisive impersonation of the reporter he had earlier mocked, she said, “Our president indicated to us what he thinks about people with disabilities long before he was elected.”
And his administration’s actions have only confirmed it.
This report was compiled by Jamie Kizzire, Brad Bennett, Will Tucker and Booth Gunter.
Top photo credit: Getty Images/Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg