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Voter Protection

Photo by David Sachs, SEIU, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act tomorrow, it would be natural to assume that securing the right to vote for people of color could be crossed off America’s to-do list. Instead, it has become clear that the law’s roots are beginning to wither, threatening the integrity of the principles on which our democracy was founded.

A Problem in Need of a Solution
In 1870, the 15th amendment to the United States Constitution ensured (male) citizens of their right to vote regardless of their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It gave Congress the power to enforce the right. Nevertheless, for the next 95 years, some states imposed hurdles such as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent African-Americans, not to mention Latinos, Native Americans and other people of color, from exercising their right to vote. When those tactics failed, law enforcement looked away—or tacitly sanctioned—threats, intimidation and actual violence against non-whites trying to vote.

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Cuban Embassy

At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 20, the Cuban flag was raised outside of the newly official Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., for the first time in more than 50 years. The crowd erupted into applause and cheers of “iViva Cuba!”

Nearly ten hours later, I walked up to the embassy on my way home from the NAFSA office and was happy to see that the celebrations had not died down. A large crowd was still chanting, singing, drumming and dancing on the sidewalk. Colorful signs calling for the end of both the travel ban and trade embargo were still weaved through the posts of the fence in front of the embassy building. I was proud to personally witness such a historic moment.

The opening of the Cuban and American embassies on Monday is an important step forward toward fully normalizing relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba. As NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Marlene M. Johnson said at the recent NAFSA conference in Boston, “Engagement, not isolation, is the best way to work toward human rights, prosperity, and security for all.”

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Could you use an elixir for disillusionment with the U.S. political system or the hand-wringing about the future of the United States? Listen to “Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” a story broadcasted on NPR’s “This American Life” about Abdi Nor, a Somali refugee living in Kenya who won the Diversity Visa (DV) program lottery.

The goal of the DV lottery, when it was created by Congress in 1990, was to diversify the immigrant population by allowing people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States to apply for one of 55,000 green cards available annually under the program. Unlike the vast majority of others who apply to live permanently in the United States, DV applicants aren’t required to have family already here or an employer sponsoring them.

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The Supreme Court delivered a victory to representative democracy today, ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, an independent body, and not only a state legislature, has the power to create voting districts.

In 2000, the people of Arizona voted by referendum to create an independent redistricting commission to draw voting districts, taking the process away from the legislature and outside of the political pulls associated with redistricting efforts. The Arizona legislature sued to overturn the results of the referendum in order to regain its authority to draw voting districts.

Today’s decision ensures that independent commissions remain an option in the fight to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and begins to reverse the trend in which “representatives choose their voters instead of voters choosing their representatives.” For too long, the United States’ inability to address political gerrymandering has sullied our reputation as a standard bearer of democracy.

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By Qianlei Li

President Barack Obama recently announced that the United States and China will increase the validity of student and exchange visitor visas from 1 to 5 years, and the validity of short-term tourist and business visas from 1 to 10 years. This is really great news and I’m glad to share why this agreement is important from a student perspective.

To begin with, it saves time, money, and energy for Chinese students studying in the United States. Previously, Chinese students applying for an F-1 visa were only granted an entry visa that was valid for a year. If our visa expired and if we planned to travel outside the United States (perhaps for an internship or study opportunity, or to visit family back home for the holidays), we needed to renew our visa annually, outside of the United States, either in China, Mexico, or Canada, before returning to continue our studies.

Because it’s difficult to figure out the visa renewal process in Mexico without having a strong command of Spanish, and also this year, Canada temporarily suspended processing of all non-Canadian visa applications, we have to go back to China and start the visa application all over again, including paying the $160 visa application fee and waiting hours outside of a U.S. consulate for an interview. Depending on the time of year, it can take up to a month to get your visa renewed. Therefore, most students choose to get their visas renewed during summer vacation. However, it costs at least $1,000 to get a round-trip air ticket to China, and the summer is a precious period of time to gain additional education and professional experience in the United States or somewhere else in the world.

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Reports of death have been greatly exaggerated at least since 1897, when Mark Twain told the New York Journal that contrary to reports, he was in fact alive. So it is with immigration reform which, these days, is the subject of repeated obituaries. You only die once—unless, apparently, you’re immigration reform, which dies in our newspapers and on our TV screens with monotonous regularity.

One reason these frequent death reports are getting boring is that we always know the culprit—there isn’t even any suspense. In the case of immigration reform’s most recent demise, a hitherto unknown politician named David Brat holds the bloody dagger. His defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia seventh district primary supposedly proves that the tea party is again ascendant and that all hope for immigration reform is gone.

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In 1862, during the darkest days for the Union, President Lincoln faced a momentous decision. He wanted to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. Many counseled against it, fearing that the time was not right: It would prolong the war, fracture Lincoln’s coalition in Congress, and have other adverse consequences. It was far from clear that the “team of rivals” that comprised the president’s Cabinet would support such an action. But Lincoln was convinced, in his own mind, that emancipation was not only the right thing to do, but would in fact have positive strategic consequences for the war effort. Late that year, buoyed by victories on the battlefield, Lincoln informed—not consulted, but informed—his Cabinet of his decision, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

President Barack Obama now confronts his “Lincoln moment”: Will he emulate this greatest of American presidents? Will he take bold executive action to address an injustice of his administration: the record deportations of undocumented immigrants? That this would be the right thing to do is unquestionable. The administration is more concerned about the politics: Would it be strategic, or would it actually work against immigration reform? If we think clearly about these issues, as Lincoln did in the case of emancipation, we will see that executive action on deportations is not detrimental to immigration reform, but would, if anything, actually help reform. Why is this the case?

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared 2014 as a “year of action,” and reminded Congress that “…what most Americans want [is] for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” He shone a light on education by noting the importance of “….preparing tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education;” and he again asked Congress to take up commonsense immigration reform as he explained:

“When people come here to fulfill their dreams – to study, invent, and contribute to our culture – they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

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