Kamala Harris has the home-state advantage, but the other Democratic presidential hopefuls are not ceding the state.
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BOGOTÁ, Colombia—This country is already overwhelmed by the Venezuelan migration. Its schools and hospitals are crowded. Its public spaces are overrun. Yet its right-wing government continues, against mild public opposition, to keep Colombia open as more and more people arrive from across the border, fleeing the collapse of their economy.
Most recently, Colombian President Iván Duque extended citizenship to 24,000 Colombian-born babies of Venezuelan mothers, as well as to those born in the next two years. The offer is a generous one for women in Venezuela who would migrate to raise children.
Why does Colombia, with its own problems, compounded by decades of civil war, strive to keep such a charitable demeanor toward Venezuela? Although the country’s approach has won praise from humanitarian institutions, Bogotá’s plan isn’t only about goodwill, but also about a levelheaded attempt to build a framework to manage a migration that’s going to come whether citizenship is offered to Venezuelan babies or not.
It certainly makes Colombia seem like a leader in global migration ideas. Although the country is playing catch-up on the issue of birthright citizenship, which is standard across the continent, the direction of its migration policy is notable: It is opening up while other nations, including in the region, are closing down. The approach combines a cold realism acknowledging that nothing will stop the migration with a strategy aimed at economic integration and a heartfelt affection for Venezuela—long a hero in Colombia’s own story.
[Read: Colombia’s radical plan to welcome millions of Venezuelan migrants]
“For those who want to make from xenophobia a political path, we adopt the path of brotherhood,” Duque said in a televised address announcing his decree. “For those who want to outcast or discriminate against migrants, we stand up today … to say that we are going to take them in and we are going to support them during difficult times.”
These remarks may seem uncharacteristic of a head of state from the political right today. Years of migration to places such as the United States, Europe, and Australia have prompted wealthy nations to narrow the entryways for immigrants. Politicians have garnered popular support by decrying the dangers of migration. So Colombia makes an interesting example of a less wealthy nation opening rather than shutting doors when confronted with 1.4 million new people—a number that will only rise.
When I asked Colombia’s border manager, Felipe Muñoz, if the president’s decree might attract more young women to Colombia to give birth, he said no.
“We don’t think that it’s administrative measures that move the migration,” he told me. “Those women were coming here to have babies anyway. And they did it because there aren’t hospitals in Venezuela. Perhaps it’s better to have everybody organized.”
[Read: Colombia is losing the race against the Venezuelan migrant crisis]
Given Colombia’s more than 1,000 miles of open border with Venezuela, leaders here began forming their migration policy with the assumption that nothing they could do would stop the migration. Any effort now to restrict or discourage the flow of people out of Venezuela seems akin to the heaping of sandbags beside a mighty river as it swells. So the government is aiming to make this inevitable flood, well under way, as orderly as possible: That means more seats in schools and extra funding for hospitals, plus initiatives to integrate Venezuelans and some new sectors in the economy for the new population to support itself. Otherwise, already vulnerable communities here will drown in the tide of desperate people arriving to survive however they can.
The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bolstering hospitals, schools, credit, and aid for affected communities in the border zone. It is working on a framework for a comprehensive policy that will outline how to allocate funds to the migration crisis. But there isn’t much money to spare in a national budget already taxed by a reconciliation process from a civil war that ended in 2016. The international applause for Colombia’s open-migration stance hasn’t come with as many donation checks as officials here had expected.
Meanwhile, the open approach hasn’t always been an easy sell to the public. Duque’s announcement of his citizenship decree, posted on social media, quickly racked up a long list of comments demanding to know why Colombia would spend money helping Venezuelans when its own people have plenty of problems. Indeed, initially generous attitudes may be beginning to dull. One poll, by the Colombian market-research firm Invamer and commissioned by major local media brands, found that Colombians’ disapproval of the government’s handling of the Venezuelan crisis grew from 34 percent to 56 percent from February to July, while support for accommodative policies for Venezuelans fell from 56 percent to 46 percent. Many Venezuelans and aid groups complain about anger and xenophobia toward the immigrant population. But for the most part, Venezuelans arriving by foot or by bus have largely been able to lean on a robust web of humanitarian-support operations from Colombian charities and NGOs.
But the long-term developmental challenges for local governments across Colombia are becoming clearer as immigrant communities sprout throughout the poorest areas of big cities. The migration crisis, once confined mostly to the border zone, has spread to all major urban areas, where Venezuelan families live on the brink of poverty. Bogotá, a city of 7 million, is now home to 350,000 Venezuelans alone.
One such community, called La Magdalena, sits between industrial yards on the west end of the capital. An estimated 100 families, most having arrived in the past year, live in hastily built brick shacks amid piles of rubble and trash. They make their living by collecting and sorting the city’s garbage, then selling it to a nearby recycling plant. Local children sport a large collection of derelict toys that their parents salvaged during their daily pickings. Running water gets to only a few spigots in the area, which doesn’t appear on any map. The community grows as people come from Venezuela to join cousins or siblings who’ve found crude stability here.
All Venezuelan kids are entitled to attend Colombian public school, by edict of the government last year. But in many schools, there simply isn’t room; many of the children in La Magdalena have been put on waiting lists. They’ll be attended without being charged at hospitals only in cases of emergency. Most adults are confined to informal jobs.
The many young communities like La Magdalena represent a challenge to Colombia’s stability. Over a generation, they’ll come to fuel the informal economy and probably crime, harbor public-health problems, and keep the city playing catch-up to extend services to all its residents.
[Read: Latin America gets its own migrant crisis]
Colombia’s puzzle is how to keep these people away from the brink of poverty, ideally with jobs, education, and health care, so that they can become productive citizens in a modern economy. That isn’t easily done, especially with national unemployment already at 10 percent. The government has touted public-private partnerships to invest in the economic opportunity created by a displaced population that needs to rebuild. It has registered nearly 700,000 Venezuelans for special permission to work. It issued a stimulus spending package to help border communities absorb the crisis.
With enough investment, this influx of people could be harnessed and used to build a better future for everyone. But there isn’t enough investment, or enough resources in the country, to match the magnitude of the migration. In his recent speech, Duque pointed out this contrast with wealthier nations that have a much greater ability to absorb migrants economically.
He said, “Even though we have a per capita income of less than $8,000, much less than European countries that have confronted migratory crises, we know how to act in brotherhood and a sense of solidarity.”
Yet Colombians often insist that comparing their own migration policy with others abroad isn’t fair, because of their age-old younger-sibling-esque relationship with Venezuela. Duque went on in his speech to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary this month of the war for independence, which the two neighbors fought side by side. Simón Bolívar, known in Colombia as “The Liberator,” marched from Venezuela to free Bogotá from Spanish imperial rule in August 1819 and formed a massive nation, of which both these modern countries were a part. Long after that nation’s dissolution, Venezuela, a leader in Latin America, thrived on oil riches while Colombia struggled, mired in poverty and war. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled violence at home for better prospects in Venezuela, which, they say, received them gracefully.
“Twenty years ago, when the opposite was happening … they actually welcomed us. So for all Colombians, this is a very emotional issue,” Sergio Guzman, the founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, told me.
To many, it feels like Colombia is paying back an important favor to a neighbor that has twice come to the rescue. Venezuelans are also aware of this. They remember the waves of migration that washed upon their country back when it was wealthy, not just from Colombia but from all over Latin America. And they remember their own community’s relatively welcoming stance toward the newcomers.
“Venezuela helped many Colombians,” Rossana Tua, 33, told me as she stood outside her brick shack home in La Magdalena, where she’s lived for almost a year since moving from Venezuela. “Now it’s Colombia’s turn to help Venezuelans.”
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Standing before a room full of reporters on Tuesday, Governor Mike Dunleavy of Alaska let go of the podium he’d been gripping, spreading his hands wide as he announced the agreement he had reached with the state’s university system. He said the two sides of the negotiation had started “a little bit apart,” but they had worked toward the middle. The middle they’d arrived at was a $70 million budget cut to the university system spread over the next three years.
It seemed a small victory. In June, Dunleavy cut $130 million in state funding for the university—or about 40 percent of the system’s budget. A cut like that in one fell swoop was unprecedented. There were fears of layoffs and campus closures. The system’s Board of Regents declared financial exigency—essentially bankruptcy—to give itself room to more easily fire tenured faculty. The deal signed this week assuaged some of those fears, at least providing the University of Alaska with some clarity on its future. “This deal provides a great deal of certainty,” John Davies, the chair of the board, said during the press conference.
[Read: Higher education has become a partisan issue]
What is certain is that the university will still have a significant budget cut over the next three years. The improvement is that the bleeding from this cut can be more easily managed. “It won’t be painless, but it’s better manageable pain,” said Luis Maldonado, the vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. And there is still some uncertainty left in the wake of this deal, for both the school and its students. Typically, when colleges lose state support, some of the costs are transferred to the students by way of tuition increases. For prospective students who may be looking to attend the university, not knowing how much it will cost three years from now may seem a daunting prospect. “That complicates future planning,” Maldonado told me.
Dunleavy argued that various state-funded entities, including the university system, needed to better manage their spending in order to deal with the state’s ongoing budget woes—largely the result of its reliance on an uneasy oil market. The state universities were too reliant on state funding, he said, and this was a good opportunity for them to diversify their revenue streams. Denisa Gándara, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University, thinks the suggestion is dubious.
The state recognizes that its reliance on oil is unsustainable, Gándara told me, and higher education is one of the best ways to prepare people for the non-oil-related jobs that will need to be created to fix that problem. And then there are the more practical things that a large budget cut—especially one that received national attention —does to a university’s reputation. Students may worry about the institution’s stability, which could lead to reduced enrollment, and “it may make it harder for [the school] to receive grants for research if there’s this perception that the universities don’t have the actual capacity” to take on that research, Gándara said.
[Read: The education deserts of rural America]
The university system has the next three years to address these cuts, but as Amy Li, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Northern Colorado, told me, doing so will suck time and resources away from the school, hampering its ability to accomplish things like improve graduation rates. Some research has shown that when state funding increases, so do graduation rates; Alaska may be a case study in whether the converse is true.
During the news conference, Dunleavy assured reporters that “the university is actually near and dear to my heart.” He ran down his bona fides: He attended the university, as did his daughters, and he even worked for the university for a time. The institution’s best years, he said, are ahead of it. “I look forward to making the University of Alaska a stronger university,” Dunleavy said. Stronger it may become, but Dunleavy’s cuts have certainly weakened the odds of that happening.
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Roughly half of Americans think federal law bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Despite four years of nationwide same-sex marriage, despite rapidly growing cultural acceptance for LGBTQ people, despite extensive annual Pride celebrations—these Americans are wrong. Now that all of this summer’s glitter floats have been dismantled and the rainbow confetti has been cleared, lawyers, legislators, and judges have turned back to the ongoing fight over whether federal law does, and should, specifically protect LGBTQ people from being fired, denied a rental lease, or refused service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This year will mark several important milestones in the battle over LGBTQ discrimination. In the spring, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping bill that would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in all aspects of public and commercial life, without any religious exemptions. While the bill has basically no chance of gaining traction in this Senate, if Democrats sweep Congress in 2020, it will likely be high on the party’s priority list. In the fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC & Aimee Stephens, about a former funeral director who was fired after coming out to her employer as transgender. The justices will consider whether existing workplace protections in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already cover discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
And yet, the legal status of LGBTQ rights remains murky. As the movement has gained cultural momentum, activists have largely moved away from a posture of compromise—they believe they can win full protections for LGBTQ people in any context, without exceptions. A small but significant group of conservative religious leaders has been working the middle ground, trying to build support for a bill that would protect LGBTQ people but leave space for institutions, such as Christian colleges and Catholic hospitals, to operate according to their religious teachings. But they’ve faced resistance from their right, with prominent pastors and conservative legal groups opposed to any kind of bill that would mark sexual orientation and gender identity as special legal categories.
As America has largely moved on from its gay-rights moment, with many Americans believing everything got taken care of with same-sex marriage, legal advocates on both sides have been left with bitter disagreements about where the country should go next—and the possibility that the status quo will perpetually remain in place.
Americans don’t agree on whether LGBTQ discrimination actually happens. Conservative advocates argue that LGBTQ people face little to no discrimination, and that their identities have been normalized—LGBTQ folks are featured on TV shows and in movies, and many businesses have voluntarily crafted their own nondiscrimination policies. Ask LGBTQ people themselves, however, and they consistently see discrimination in their daily lives: A recent study from the Williams Institute at UCLA found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people reported much higher rates of being bullied, fired, or denied a job, promotion, or lease compared with heterosexual people. In a 2015 survey of transgender Americans, 30 percent of respondents with jobs reported experiencing workplace discrimination of some kind within the prior year; a quarter said they encountered some form of housing discrimination.
Still, these experiences can be subtle or hard to document. And the incentives for bringing a formal, legal complaint vary wildly, depending on where someone lives: 20 states fully prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while 28 states don’t. (Two others—Wisconsin and Utah—bar some kinds of discrimination, but not others.) “Because it doesn’t look just like Jim Crow,” said Doug NeJaime, a law professor at Yale University who focuses on LGBTQ legal issues, conservatives argue that “it then doesn’t merit attention.” But, he said, “there’s lots of reasons why discrimination against LGBT people looks different than other forms of discrimination … [That] doesn’t mean it’s not discrimination that needs to be remedied.”
Early legislation proposing civil-rights protections for gays and lesbians was often hedged: Advocates focused on issues such as workplace discrimination, where they thought they had a greater chance of victory. Roughly five years ago, however, the strategy among advocates began to shift: Public perception had become much more favorable, and leaders believed they could set more ambitious political and legal goals. Activists began calling for a comprehensive bill without religious exemptions.
As all of this was happening on the legislative side, the courts were also working through what the law already says about LGBTQ rights. In the past 30 years, the Supreme Court has ruled sex stereotyping illegal; declared sodomy bans unconstitutional; struck down state measures blocking civil-rights protections for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; and, of course, legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. But even as the inevitability of legalized gay marriage was becoming clear in the early 2010s, “the narrative really began to take hold that you could be married on Sunday and fired on Monday and lose your housing on Tuesday,” Sarah McBride, the national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBTQ-rights advocacy group, told me. “That really brought into starker contrast the absurdity of the lack of explicit protections.”
[Read: How gay marriage became a constitutional right]
This question has been particularly fraught for transgender people, such as the plaintiff who will go before the Supreme Court this fall. LGBTQ legal advocates have argued with mixed success that sex stereotyping, or discriminating against people based on their failure to live out societal norms for men and women, necessarily includes discrimination against transgender people. They argue that those who discriminate against transgender people because of their gender identity are already breaking the law—a claim the Supreme Court will soon consider in the Harris Funeral Homes case.
Because advocates are arguing that trans protections already exist in the law, but still need to be written into the law via the Equality Act, some critics have accused them of hypocrisy. Activists “are talking out of both sides of their mouths,” wrote Greg Baylor, the senior counsel for government affairs at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm that advocates for religious liberty, in an email. “While arguing in court that Title VII already includes sexual orientation and gender identity, they are simultaneously urging Congress to add these categories.”
Mara Keisling, the head of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me she is “confident the courts will eventually come down on our side.” Until that happens, however, “we do need these laws to explicitly name us, if for no other reason than it is better public education,” she added. “And public education is one of the most important parts about ending discrimination.”
Ironically, as LGBTQ rights have expanded, it has become harder for advocates to make their case to the public. Before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, “people could see very clearly the fact that same-sex couples couldn’t get married,” McBride said. “People have a more difficult time understanding the way civil rights work in our country, the absence of protections.” The movement has also developed powerful allies from Wall Street to Hollywood, and those alliances have been used against advocates. “The way in which the business community has embraced LGBT rights has played into the narrative that some on the right want to put out, which is that the LGBT community is not some vulnerable minority,” NeJaime said. “The irony about antidiscrimination laws is: Vulnerable groups don’t get protected until they’re actually … [able to] muster the political power to gain momentum.”
Still, that momentum has redoubled the resolve of LGBTQ activists. Maybe they won’t win at the Supreme Court this time, or get nondiscrimination legislation passed through this Congress. But, they believe, theirs is a cause of progress. They will eventually win it all.
And that has left a number of their opponents very, very nervous.
When the Equality Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives this spring, there were no amendments on the floor—it was just an up or down vote. “It’s what a lot of people would call a messaging bill,” said Tyler Deaton, a Republican strategist who works with GOP politicians to support LGBTQ rights. It was a powerful message indeed. The legislation won the vote of every Democrat in the House who participated in the roll call, along with eight Republicans—a clear sign of its broad support. The bill also sent another message: The days of compromise are over.
In recent years, claims of LGBTQ rights have been repeatedly brought into direct conflict with claims of religious conscience. Just this week, the Trump administration proposed a new rule that would allow federal contractors to make hiring and firing decisions based on their religious beliefs and practices; progressive advocates believe the rule will be used to target LGBTQ people. The most notable court cases have involved wedding vendors: conservative, religious cake bakers, photographers, and florists who don’t want to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. The outcomes of these conflicts have been mixed, but they’ve made progressive LGBTQ advocates even more determined to eliminate the “gaping religious exemption,” as McBride put it. The Equality Act specifically bars any group from using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, to try to opt out of the bill’s protections.
For religious groups and institutions that teach that homosexuality is a sin, and that men and women were created as such by God, the prospect of this kind of legislation is worrying. “It would be years of litigation—that’s what we would look forward to under the Equality Act as currently drafted,” Shirley Hoogstra, the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), told me. For the nearly 140 Christian institutions that are members of her organization, she said, the bill “would put federal funding, it would put accreditation, it would put hiring rights, it would put campus student-life policies all at risk.” Fundamentally, these kinds of groups want to be able to preserve what they see as religious integrity in their own spaces—and they object when that is described as bigotry. “The Equality Act as currently drafted has caused Christian institutions to really wonder about whether their particular educational contribution is valued in America,” Hoogstra said.
Hoogstra has been part of a coalition pushing an alternative to the Equality Act called Fairness for All. Her organization, along with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventists, believes federal LGBTQ discrimination protections are inevitable—the Equality Act’s passage “was a proof point,” Hoogstra said. They want the final law, whenever it passes, to reflect their needs. Broadly speaking, Fairness for All–style legislation would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but provide exceptions for certain religious institutions, including schools—much like exceptions that were written into parts of the original Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
So far, this effort has not won any of the public Republican support necessary to make Fairness for All a plausible competitor to the Equality Act. Many Republicans may not see this as a worthwhile way to spend political capital, or remain opposed to establishing any LGBTQ rights in federal law. But the bill’s boosters still see the possibility of a strong coalition between religious-freedom advocates and LGBTQ-rights supporters. “If you canvass LGBT activists or professional LGBT organizations, some of the people that are the most favorable … are heads of equality organizations in red states,” said Tim Schultz, the president of the First Amendment Partnership, a group that has worked on crafting consensus between LGBTQ-rights advocates and religious conservatives.
[Read: How Trump is reversing Obama’s nondiscrimination legacy]
LGBTQ people in these states generally have no legal recourse against discrimination outside of local and municipal ordinances, which provide only a patchwork of protection. Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, an advocacy group in the state, said he doesn’t necessarily support sweeping religious exemptions, but “I do support us being in dialogue and having a respectful conversation with people of faith … We need to make sure that small-business owners understand that there is not a big agenda out to … hurt them or their businesses.”
Before Fairness for All has truly even launched, however, those seeking an accord have faced major backlash from their backyard. When the evangelical World Magazine broke the news that the CCCU and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which claims to represent roughly 45,000 churches, had voted to support the Fairness for All effort, a prominent group of conservative religious leaders signed a letter of condemnation. Laws that provide specific protections for sexual orientation and gender identity “empower the government to use the force of law to silence or punish Americans who seek to exercise their God-given liberty to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions,” they wrote, and “treat reasonable religious and philosophical beliefs as discriminatory.” The signers included Franklin Graham, the evangelist Billy Graham’s son, who has been known to make inflammatory comments about homosexuality; but also Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, who is often seen as a moderating voice in the evangelical world. The NAE has since backed away from full support, citing its “desire to appropriately acknowledge and respect differences among evangelicals.”
All of this complicates the picture of what might come next. If the Democrats make a full electoral sweep in 2020, holding on to the House, taking back the Senate, and winning the White House, it seems likely that the Equality Act will be on their agenda—and it’s unlikely the party’s leadership will be open to finding a middle ground. Meanwhile, the groups totally opposed to this kind of legislation are preparing for legal war. The hard dichotomy between religion and LGBTQ rights is false—a majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are themselves religious, and many faith groups welcome and affirm them in their congregations. When it comes to the legal and legislative battlefield, however, that nuance all but disappears.
It’s as true in culture as it is in physics: For any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and America seems to be going through one such moment now. In the past five years, public support for people refusing to serve LGBTQ people when it violates their religious beliefs has crept up steadily: Almost a third of Americans, and nearly half of Republicans, say this should be legal, compared with 16 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in 2014. The story of the LGBTQ movement has lately been one of triumph, but it’s not clear whether that will continue. Graham, of Georgia Equality, told me he believes some kind of federal legislation will eventually protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, “but I’m not optimistic that it will happen quickly,” he added. In this political environment, the possibility of moderation and dialogue seems almost antiquated. “It really feels,” he said, “like everything is a battle for the soul of the nation.”
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