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A Promising New Approach on Assault Weapons

September 12th, 2014

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Just four months after 20 students and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, 60 Senators voted down an amendment to ban assault weapons. It was a heartbreaking moment for many of us. For decades, advocates in the gun safety movement have held up the assault weapons ban as a standard, the marker by which they measure any progress. And it was the first piece of legislation most Americans called to mind in the days after Sandy Hook—it seemed unimaginable that in less than 5 minutes, 154 bullets were fired and 26 innocents were left dead. But if in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in American history, an assault weapon ban was still out of reach, what does that say about its future? After all, no one thinks the Senate is going to get any bluer after the elections in November.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that an assault weapons ban can’t pass anytime soon—in fact, to many it could feel akin to admitting defeat. But today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) courageously released a new report that did just that, and by doing so, they have reframed the debate, turning attention to a whole new set of policies that have an exponentially greater chance of enactment and would greatly reduce gun violence—including violence perpetrated by assault weapons. The report, Assault Weapons Revisited: Policy Options for Regulating Rifles, Shotguns, and Other Firearms 20 Years After the Passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, recognizes the limits of our current politics, but instead of conceding the issue, it offers a smart new framework for regulating some of the most dangerous guns in America. The current political impracticality of a ban does nothing to diminish widespread support for other gun safety policies that can save lives if we approach the problem differently, and they offer 6 specific ways to do so:

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Gun Violence Too Close to Home

May 28th, 2014

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Until last weekend, I thought I understood better than most that so long as gun laws remain weak and rife with loopholes and our mental health system continues to let people fall through the cracks, gun violence can happen anywhere. After all, I’ve been to Newtown and met with the Sandy Hook parents in a neighborhood that looks just like the one where I grew up. And the Navy Yard shooting last fall that claimed 12 innocent lives took place only blocks from my Washington, D.C. apartment. But it didn’t really sink in until I woke up Saturday morning to discover that overnight six students at my alma mater were gunned down or stabbed to death in Isla Vista, California, with another 13 injured. It happened in the neighborhood where I lived for years as a college student at the University of California, Santa Barbara; in the neighborhood where my brother lives now as a post-doctoral researcher at that same university. Victims who were targeted for being young college women, just like my little sister—who only decided at the last minute to attend UCLA rather than UCSB.

In two weeks I am flying back to California to watch her graduate—but now six families just like mine will be attending funerals, not graduations. I don’t know what cracks the shooter fell through in our imperfect system that allowed him to pass a background check and purchase guns. But I do know now that current gun laws are not sufficient to keep me and family and friends safe.

Yet many Americans don’t have that knowledge. I envy them, in a way, because it means that senseless and preventable gun violence has never infringed so personally on their lives. But it is precisely that knowledge divide that makes common sense gun laws so hard to pass, despite strong public support in national polls.

Take Third Way’s latest poll, for instance—released less than two weeks before the mass murder at UCSB. On one hand, 84% of moderates—who make up more than a third of the American electorate—and 81% of all Americans supported expanding criminal background checks for gun purchases. But at the same time, 58% of moderates and 60% of all Americans also said that they already think current gun laws are sufficient to protect to them and their communities. Gun violence doesn’t happen in neighborhoods like theirs, they feel, so these laws don’t really affect them.

This tension between generally supporting background checks but believing that they are unnecessary for their families’ protection led to moderates dividing right down the middle when we asked whether the country needs more government ground rules on guns, or whether it should put more trust in individuals. Unlike liberals, who by an overwhelming 58 points said that we need more government ground rules, or conservatives who preferred trusting individuals by more than 40 points, only nine points separated the 53% of moderates who chose more ground rules over the 44% who said to trust individuals. Guns safety advocates and their champions in elected office too often overlook these conflicted moderates. Instead of talking past them, we need to talk to them—recognize that they are torn on this issue and that the half of American homes that own guns want safe neighborhoods just as much as the half that don’t.

This weekend, yet another community was forced to come to the terrible realization that without stronger guns laws and a better mental health system, nowhere is truly safe—even a beach town full of college students on a holiday weekend. I was lucky. It’s been five years since I graduated, or I might have been out with friends getting fro-yo at 9:30 on a Friday. My brother was out of town, ironically enough visiting my sister at her college campus for the weekend. But six kids weren’t, and now they aren’t coming home. Passing gun laws isn’t easy, especially given the disconnect many Americans feel exists between gun laws and their own lives. But it’s so much less painful than the alternative, as we saw again last weekend.

The Bipartisan House Immigration Bill You’ve Never Heard Of

December 9th, 2013

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By now we’ve heard all the doom and gloom predictions of the chances of passing immigration reform. The media may paint a pretty pessimistic picture, but secretly Congress agrees on more than you think they do.

In May, the House Committee on Homeland Security voice voted—unanimously—in favor of the Border Security Results Act of 2013. Almost as shocking as a bipartisan vote in support of an immigration bill is the fact that the bill focuses on border security—one of the most contentious and partisan issues in the immigration policy debate. And rest assured, this is no minor messaging bill.

The Border Security Results Act requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish a national strategy for border security based on an analysis of the state of the border—a common sense approach to avoid both over-spending and over-militarizing at the Southern border. The bill would put Department of Defense sensor technology no longer needed in Iraq or Afghanistan to work monitoring the border so border patrol troops and resources can be allocated where they are truly needed. DHS would have 180 days to submit a data-based plan for maintaining control of the border and 90 days to craft a strategy for implementation. Within 2 years of the submission of the implementation plan, the strategy must lead to the apprehension of 90% of illegal border crossers in high traffic areas. Within 5 years, 90% of all illegal border crossers must be apprehended. Homeland Security must certify that these goals have been met. The strategy, implementation plan, and the metrics they rely upon must be verified by the Government Accountability Office, a National Laboratory that specializes in border security, and the DHS centers of excellence network. No money can be spent on new resources until the strategy has been evaluated by these independent experts. In addition, the bill requires the implementation of a biometric exit program at ports of entry to better track who is leaving the country and when, as well as a review of border security duplication and cost effectiveness.

Surely, if the House can figure out how to come together on border security, the rest of a comprehensive immigration reform package is in reach. When the Senate was considering this issue, the border security “surge” amendment was the final step in negotiations before a bipartisan bill was passed. Perhaps this House Committee on Homeland Security bill is a good omen—and at the very least, it is place to start. Americans—even the ones in Congress—aren’t really as far apart on immigration as it seems. Seventy-four percent of the country says current immigration policy either needs major changes or to be completely rebuilt. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said reform is “going to happen” and Speaker Boehner proclaimed immigration reform is “absolutely not” dead. The Senate’s Gang of 8 set an example of how it can be done—but there isn’t only one route to fixing our broken system. If the House could come together on a bill or a series of bills, built off of the foundation of the Border Security Results Act, they could give Congress a chance to do what we elected them to do—make progress on the issues that matter.

Dear John (Boehner)

November 12th, 2013

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Dear Speaker Boehner,

I know you’re having a really rough fall, and you may be sitting in your office right now, wistfully wishing the holiday recess would arrive. But the Senate has just passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect LGBT Americans from being fired because of who they are. And you can bring ENDA up for a vote without facing shutdown-style fallout — instead just skipping straight to the standing ovation. Here’s why:

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Keeping the World’s Best and Brightest

October 31st, 2013

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You think the Obamacare website is difficult to navigate? Try the immigration system.

Suppose you run a business and want to hire your top-performing summer intern – a master’s degree graduate in electrical engineering from India. Good luck. Because just as many of our international competitors are snatching up the highest-skilled workers around the globe, the quirky and outdated U.S. immigration system seems intentionally designed to hold back American employers and entrepreneurs.

Take, for example, Australia and Canada. There, your former intern could likely obtain a visa based on the employment offer and his in-demand skills. But here, that visa would come through in about five years – a wait that repels talent, rather than attracting it.

The reason is that the U.S. sets a strict and meager quota of giving out only 14 percent of each year’s green cards (for lawful permanent residents) based on skills – compared to Canada’s 63 percent and Australia’s two-thirds. That means out of a million green cards our government awards each year, only 140,000 go to immigrants petitioning to come to or stay in the country based on their exceptional economic value. Moreover, about half of those green cards are actually claimed by spouses and children of applicants, not the super-skilled workers our economy craves.

Our immigration policies are so retrograde that we offer the same number of employment-based green cards today that we did in 1990 – the year the internet was invented (with a great degree of help from high-skilled immigrants, incidentally). To complicate matters further, the U.S. immigration system also discriminates against exceptional workers from certain countries. In other words, if your intern was from Iceland, there would be no waiting period for a green card; if she was from China, you’ll wait more than half a decade. That’s because current law establishes hard country caps to prohibit citizens of any one country from claiming more than 9,800 employment-based visas – whether that country is the size of India (1.2 billion population) or Iceland (315,000).

What’s most stunning is that many of these high-skilled immigrants already live here, and then we force them to leave. Our world class colleges and universities attracted more than 225,000 new international students in 2011-12, and that number is increasing every year. Many earn advanced degrees in fields that create jobs and wealth, such as engineering, computer science and advanced mathematics. But after graduation, we force them to return home. There is only one winner when our immigration system prevents a business owner from hiring that ideal employee after graduation – the country who puts the student we educated to work for its economy.

For the last five years, Congress has sought to reform our immigration system in fits and starts. The best opportunity for reform is now with a bipartisan immigration bill that Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., steered through the Senate with deep bipartisan support. This bill addresses the vexing problem of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here in a tough, fair, and practical way. Those provisions have garnered the most headlines. But for the economy, the bill brings U.S. immigration into the 21st century.

The Senate’s plan would exempt those with a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from green card caps and vastly increase the number of temporary high-skilled visas available. It would move the future flow of immigration into the country from one principally based on family and proximity to one that also recognizes economic value and skills. It acknowledges that immigrants of all skill levels are essential to economic growth, but that those of the highest skill levels are urgently needed. After all, where do we want the next Intel, Facebook, Amazon, Apple or Google to start – here or in another country?

Across America, business owners are dreaming of hiring the best-educated, most exemplary workers they can find to help grow their companies and our economy, and they need Congress to fix our broken immigration system which currently stands in their way. If we want to compete in the 21st century global economy, we need to pass 21st century immigration reform.

The last true overhaul of our immigration laws was in 1986. A lot has happened since then. Our country and our economy need an updated system, and we can’t wait any longer.

This piece was originally published via US News & World Report.

A Preview of the 2013-14 Supreme Court Docket

October 8th, 2013

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ICYMI The Supreme Court has started its 2013-14 term. Cases decided in the lower courts can be appealed to the Supreme Court through a process known as petitioning for certiorari (cert), and a vote of 4 justices is required to hear the case. Once a case has been granted cert, oral arguments will be heard between October-December or January-April followed by a vote of all 9 justices—and majority rules. Though the Court’s docket for this term is not yet full, the calendar is already packed with important cases we know or expect will be heard. Below, I offer a brief description of some of the cases you’ll want to keep your eye on. Read the rest of this entry »