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An Open Letter to the 117th Congress: New Opportunities to Advance Human Rights

New congressional leadership is poised as seldom before to make strides for justice—if they will seize the moment!

By on January 25, 2021

Dear Members of the 117th Congress,

Congratulations on your election to the United States Congress. We thank you for your willingness to serve this country at a moment of unprecedented hardship. The challenges you face are vast: a global pandemic, racial injustice, hunger and poverty, and a climate crisis. We carry with us the grief of losing members of our society to COVID-19, police violence, and structural racism, and we urge you to make your actions in office a tribute to their memory.

As profound as the pain and heartbreak of the past year has been, you also take office at a time of renewed hope. A change of leadership in the White House and the Senate closes an era of divided government and offers a chance to move beyond the mistakes of the past. We urge you to seize this opportunity to make positive change. Below are some of the steps you can take to advance human rights during your time in office.

Enact Real COVID-19 Relief

While we welcome the efforts of the 116th Congress to provide COVID-19 relief to the public, the legislation enacted so far falls far short of the need. Millions of people remain at heightened risk of unemployment, houselessness, hunger and illness due to the pandemic. We urge you to take action, not only by providing survival checks, but also by halting evictions and utility shutoffs, protecting frontline workers, and ensuring universal access to the vaccine.

No one should be denied relief or vaccination due to immigration status or incarceration. Congress’s pandemic relief must take into account the disproportionate and gendered impact the virus has on working class, Native, Black, immigrant, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, as well as people who have been incarcerated and detained.

Tackle Police Brutality and Structural Racism

Anti-Blackness and other forms of structural racism infect nearly every aspect of U.S. life, from policing and incarceration, to the ways communities are exposed to toxins and environmental pollutants. Addressing such a broad range of challenges would be daunting for any Congress, but the Movement for Black Lives has sketched a way forward in their proposal for the Breathe Act—a comprehensive and visionary legislative framework to address these intersecting forms of systemic inequity.

The past year brought trauma after trauma as Black lives were taken from us by police violence and the actions of so-called “vigilantes,” much of which is still shielded under “qualified immunity” and other harmful policies. In response to this loss of lives and loved ones—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others—the U.S. public took to the streets to demand change. The 117th Congress inherits this mandate and call to action. We urge you to breathe hope once more into the prospects for real reform.

Create a Pathway to Citizenship

For decades, 11 million undocumented members of our society have watched Congresses come and go without following through on their promises to create a path to citizenship. This is true even as the need for immigration reform has grown more urgent, as the Trump administration placed the status of more than a million DACA and TPS holders in peril.

U.S. society and businesses have benefited for decades from the under-compensated labor of undocumented people—welcoming them to exploitation but refusing to recognize them as full members of society. This unjust system needs to end. Congress must enact legislation that honors their contributions and protects all workers from unfair treatment.

The 117th Congress can start to do so by passing a comprehensive solution for all undocumented immigrants, the Dream and Promise Act to create a path to citizenship for DACA and TPS holders; the New Way Forward Act to repair the damage caused by a 1996 law that unjustly criminalized and incarcerated many immigrants; and the POWER Act to shield immigrant workers from retaliation if they report abuse and exploitation at the workplace.

Respond to the Climate Crisis

As with the pandemic, the only way to find a solution to the looming climate crisis will be to work together in a way that leaves none of us behind. This means providing a just transition for fossil-fuel dependent communities and economies, funding the adaptation and relocation needs of people at the frontlines, and doing our country’s fair share (in light of its disportionate contribution to the problem of climate change) in terms of cutting carbon emissions.

The new Congress can achieve these overlapping goals. The Green New Deal offers a framework that would accomplish multiple purposes at once—transitioning our economy away from harmful fossil fuels while creating new opportunities for communities whose livelihoods are presently based on oil and gas. While this proposal remains at the visioning stage, the 117th Congress has the historic opportunity to embody it in concrete legislation. We urge you to do so now.

Align Foreign Policy with Human Rights 

The United States aspires to be a beacon of democracy and freedom, yet time and again this vision has been tainted by hypocrisy. The Trump administration emboldened autocrats and nationalistic despots around the world, further embroiling the United States in devastating conflicts—all while enacting racist and Islamophobic policies at home that made it impossible for the United States to claim the mantle of human rights leadership.

In order to advance human rights, the U.S. government must set a better example. Steps this Congress can take include targeted sanctions against military-owned businesses in Burma, due to their role in perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes against other ethnic minorities. Congress should also ensure access to humanitarian protection for refugees escaping Syria, Yemen, Cameroon, Hong Kong, Xinjiang province, and many other parts of the world experiencing human rights crises.

While we welcome the new leadership in the executive and legislative branches, experience has taught us that the work of advancing human rights never rests in the hands of one party or government. Previous Congresses have shared a party affiliation with the president and still failed to advance the legislation we need. As encouraging as your election is, therefore, the real work lies ahead of us. We urge you to recognize the promise of this moment and act to justify the trust your constituents have placed in you.


The UUSC Team


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Image Credit: UUSC

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