In Her Pitch For President, Kamala Harris Focuses On Criminal Justice, Inequality

California Sen. Kamala Harris says she was bent toward a career fighting for civil rights almost since birth.

The Democrat is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father who met at the University of California, Berkeley, and were active in the movement during the 1960s.

“I was born realizing the flaws in the criminal justice system,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Inspired by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to ever sit on the nation’s highest court, she pursued a career in law to help right the wrongs she saw. That ambition would eventually take her from the San Francisco district attorney’s office to the California attorney general’s office to the Senate. Now she hopes it will take her to the White House. She’s seeking to not only become the first woman to be president, but the first black woman.

Addressing inequality is a top priority for her. That includes her LIFT the Middle Class Act, a tax cut plan which would give families making less than $100,000 a credit of up to $500 a month, saying that “when we lift up the economic status of families, neighborhoods thrive, society thrives. All of us benefit.” She is also taking on the controversial idea of reparations, which would provide a form of compensation to those harmed by past discrimination, such as slavery and Jim Crow.

Harris is the second 2020 presidential candidate NPR’s Morning Edition has interviewed for its Opening Arguments conversations exploring presidential hopefuls’ central messages. The first was Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Inskeep interviewed Harris about her time as California attorney general, her views on immigration, criminal justice issues and more.

On immigration policy and enforcement

“Now let me tell you again about my background as a prosecutor. That includes having sat down with children who have dealt with the worst of crimes that you can imagine and understanding that you can never prove their cases until you spend a significant amount of time with them, so that they trust you as an adult [whom] they don’t know to tell their story, OK? People in Washington were saying, ‘Expedite these cases, get them done in two weeks.’ For children who — I will never forget the images — who were sitting on a chair, their feet were dangling. That’s how small they were. And we were going to expedite these cases to have them tell a perfect stranger in a language or a dialect they don’t speak about the trauma that they were experiencing in their home country, which required them to seek refuge in ours. …

“In fact, my first bill in the United States Senate was Access to Counsel Act to ensure that none of the people — and then that was also the Muslim refugees after the Muslim ban — to make sure that nobody would be denied access to counsel when they’re going through these hearings around refugee status and around asylum. …

“I disagree with any policy that would turn America’s back on people who are fleeing harm. I frankly believe that it is contrary to everything that we have symbolically and actually said we stand for. And so I would not enforce a law that would reject people and turn them away without giving them a fair and due process to determine if we should give them asylum and refuge.”

Harris draws directly on her personal experiences in California in explaining her approach to immigration. Her focus contrasts with the criminality often emphasized by President Trump. She told NPR, for example, about children she met on a bus in Marietta, Calif. — unaccompanied minors who had been sent by their parents away from high-crime areas in Central America, who were being “exposed to unknown perils, [but] their parents decided that was better than them staying where they were. So that tells you how bad it was where they were.”

Her use of the phrase “would not enforce a law” is prime for Republican criticism. Yet immigrant rights advocates have argued the administration’s policies violate international human rights law, including a program that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their assigned court dates in the U.S.

On reparations as a health issue

“If we start to examine what have been the outcomes of the history of slavery and legal segregation and discrimination, you can look at the fact — and anyone can tell you who’s a mental health specialist — that when people have experienced trauma, and it has been undiagnosed and untreated, you will see certain public health outcomes. And so if you recognize the trauma that existed, and we want to end what are avoidable health outcomes, you need to put resources — and direct resources, extra resources — into those communities that have experienced that trauma. …

“The term ‘reparations,’ it means different things to different people. But what I mean by it, is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what have been … the consequences and what can be done in terms of intervention to correct course.”

The issue of reparations is one that Democratic candidates have embraced so far this cycle, generally pitching policies that aim to address economic inequality. In this interview, though, Harris emphasizes a disparity in health outcomes that she attributes to “environmental” rather than genetic factors.

“It is centuries of slavery — violence associated with slavery,” Harris said. “There was never any real intervention to break up what had been generations of people experiencing the highest forms of trauma, and trauma undiagnosed and untreated leads to physiological outcomes.”

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