Since taking office, Sessions has rescinded Obama-era guidance on discrimination against trans students and announced his intention to end the civil-rights division’s aggressive oversight of police departments, even seeking to rescind a court-monitoring agreement overseeing police in Baltimore.
Even without details however, the budget proposal also outlines priorities for the division, clearly reorienting it further towards Sessions’s policy preferences, particularly on immigration. The budget proposal also makes no mention at all of fighting discrimination against people with disabilities, a notable change from the Obama-era 2016 request, which described it as a major priority.
The budget proposal states that the division will “prioritize enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure that companies do not discriminate against U.S. workers in favor of foreign visa holders.” While the 1986 law does protect Americans from discrimination based on nationality, it has typically been used to prevent discrimination against workers who are assumed to be in the U.S. illegally but are not. Hiring non-citizens ineligible to work in the United States is already illegal, and enforcement of those laws is handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“This is a statute that has been used quite appropriately to protect Latinos, to protect Asian Americans and Asian immigrants from discrimination based on the concern or the stereotype that they aren't authorized to work when they are," said Samuel Bagenstos, a former high-ranking official in the civil-rights division who now teaches law at the University of Michigan. "This seems to change the orientation of that enforcement to go after employers who aren't hiring American workers."
The budget proposal may also bode ill for ongoing school desegregation efforts, Obama-era rules governing sexual assault and harassment on college campuses, and voluntary affirmative action or desegregation programs in schools. The budget proposal states that the division will “continue to work collaboratively with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to review regulatory materials” and to “to prioritize the review of approximately 170 longstanding consent decrees.”
"That means they're going to look through consent decrees and find which ones they can get rid of,” said Bagenstos. The consent decrees they're talking about are school desegregation cases."
The section on voting rights is identical to the budget request from 2016, with one key sentence omitted in the 2017 version: a promise to “focus on detecting and challenging practices that violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”
While the proposal states that the division will “continue to protect voting rights through efforts to detect and investigate voting practices that violate federal laws,” Gupta expressed concern that might not accurately reflect the division’s new priorities.