Mr. President: We don't Need Gestures; We Need Action to Ban the Box

By Steve Huerta

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Earlier this week the President announced that his office was issuing a memorandum to Ban the Box for federal employment. What followed was an explosion of jubilant articles that once again brought to light what we in the movement of formerly incarcerated people have worked on for over ten years: our success through grass roots organizing in Banning the Box in over 100 cities and counties and nineteen states.

Those of us who were formerly incarcerated are happy to see the movement getting notice, but we aren't celebrating just yet. We are not celebrating because the President's announcement does not go far enough. We are not celebrating because his announcement only bans the question of previous criminal history on job applications for federal agencies, most of which already ban the question. As a result, the president's move feels like a Band-Aid, a symbolic gesture meant to appease a growing and more vocal movement.

But we don't need a pat on the head with half-measures. We need a complete Ban the Box measure that includes an executive order that carries the weight of the President's signature and extends to federal contractors. We need a full Ban the Box measure with enforceable rules behind it.

Many federal jobs are in the hands of federal contractors. It would take an Executive Order or a strong bill with enforceable action to have an impact.

We continue to push for an executive order and have met with Roy Austin, the Deputy Assistant to the President at the Domestic Policy Council.

There's another effort that also has promise and that's a Congressional Fair Chance bill that would give formerly incarcerated people a fairer chance at securing employment by prohibiting federal contractors and federal agencies from asking about the criminal history of a job applicant until an applicant receives a conditional offer of employment. We've meet with staffers from the offices of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who both support legislation that gives formerly incarcerated people a fair chance to be hired. We voiced our collective dissatisfaction with the bills as they are currently written because they do not detail enough enforcement to make employers accountable if they discriminate against those who have been incarcerated.

Let me explain why we need to "Ban the Box."

This movement by formerly incarcerated people and their families is about more than jobs. It's about housing, our political inclusion and our right to full citizenship. It is about our dignity.

I joined the movement 15 years ago. I am a Latino civil rights activist and a member of the advocacy group, All of Us or None. As a formerly incarcerated person, I never forget why I got into this fight. I can't forget the days when I couldn't pay the rent or buy something to eat, or even pay my child support. My son Nicholas grew up with the memories of his dad struggling to make ends meet, suggesting places we could or things we could do, like go to the park, because we had no money for anything else. My son like so many other children is an impacted person and he hasn't seen the inside of a jail cell, yet we were being punished together.

And it's not just me. I can't forget about people like Joe Caballero, of San Antonio, Texas, who had to wait seven years after his release to get a job with the federal government because many employers want people with no criminal records for at least seven years. His journey, like so many others, started with application after application to federal contractors here in San Antonio, Texas. He never gave up. Every rejection made him more determined. His wife Donna, their two sons and daughter all shared in his struggle. This family and many others like them should not have to suffer.

Formerly incarcerated people like Joe and myself have done their time and now we want to become contributing vital members of our communities.

Banning the Box isn't just for those being released, it's about all persons with records whether they are arrests, misdemeanors or felonies, and it's also about those future generations who may one day have a criminal record.

A strong and enforceable Ban the Box measure has ripple effects throughout the communities of the thousands of men and women released from prison every year. It helps small businesses grow because they are better able to tap into the potential that exists in those communities. More formerly incarcerated people working means more stable tax bases in their neighborhoods, which are often in disinvested communities. A strong Ban the Box measure also helps formerly incarcerated people in areas, such as child support, better access to housing and education.

We as a nation can point the legion of people who have been formerly incarcerated to new opportunities to succeed, but only by including them in our economy by hiring them for jobs that tap their potential, drive and skills.

We are an underemployed and discriminated against national workforce. In its current state, the Congressional bills are a paper tiger and the President's efforts, while we applaud them, fall short of what we need. Whether relief comes in the form of an Executive Order or a meaningful and enforceable bill passed by Congress, or both, millions of struggling families and countless communities need the doors of opportunity completely open and unlocked.

Huerta is a member of All of Us or None Texas and a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.