Aura Bogado on the UndocuBus, Gizelle Lugo on for-proft colleges, Rania Khalek on felon disenfranchisement


ON THE ROAD WITH THE UNDOCUBUS: On a night in late August, Knoxville’s Church of the Savior was buzzing with energy. Local residents had prepared a potluck feast for UndocuBus riders, who had spent the last three days in eastern Tennessee. The riders included undocumented students, day laborers and domestic workers, and they were headed to the Democratic National Convention.

The UndocuBus is reaching out to those most affected by draconian immigration laws, while also building community with white allies who are helping to feed and house the riders as they head toward Charlotte. In Knoxville, Sheriff J.J. Jones is seeking to help the Department of Homeland Security enforce federal immigration law. Alejandro Guizar, 19, is among those who want to challenge him. Arrested after his high school graduation
for public intoxication, Guizar still faces deportation proceedings even though the charge was dropped. He was recently arrested again after an act of civil disobedience protesting Sheriff Jones—but mounting pressure from the UndocuBus and its network swiftly secured his release.

Arrested with Guizar was 66-year-old Fran Ansley, a white woman who works with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. The last time she’d been arrested was back in 1969, during an anti–Vietnam War protest. But she’s been so inspired by today’s activists that she wants to contribute as well. On the way back from dinner, the riders sang, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” (The people united will never be defeated.) The UndocuBus challenges how we define “the people” and who creates change.   AURA BOGADO

SCAMMING STUDENTS: This summer, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin released the results of a two-year investigation into for-profit colleges that confirmed the suspicions many have had for some time: the rapidly growing industry is focused more on profits than on its students.

The study, conducted by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, probed thirty for-profit colleges, half of which are publicly traded, such as the Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix and the Washington Post Company’s Kaplan Higher Education. The results were staggering. “The for-profit schools take in about 10 to 12 percent of all the students of higher education,” Harkin told NPR, but “they account for over 50 percent of the defaults. Right away, you look at that and you say: Something isn’t right here.”

The for-profits’ programs appeal largely to lower-income people and veterans looking to earn degrees on their own time through online classes. Many of these institutions can cost up to 420 percent more than their public counterparts—and in some cases, even more than Ivy League colleges. Plus the vast majority of students enrolled—95 percent—will seek federal or private loans to pay for the tuition.

The result? At a time when public institutions face debilitating budget cuts, 86 percent of the for-profit colleges’ revenue comes from taxpayers, to the tune of $32 billion in the most recent year. Only 17 percent of this revenue goes to actual education; 22.7 percent (roughly $4.2 billion) is spent on marketing and recruiting schemes that have been criticized as relying on predatory practices.

Harkin’s report also highlights the executive compensation of for-profit college CEOs, like Strayer Education’s Robert Silberman, who took home some $41.9 million in 2009, and the former CEO of Kaplan University, Jonathan Grayer, who got a $76 million severance package in 2008.

Especially now that student debt has surpassed credit card debt—and with economists warning it could be the next bubble to burst—Harkin says the industry needs strict oversight and reform. “We need to think seriously about outcome-based thresholds,” he said, “especially for these colleges that get a huge amount of revenue from taxpayers.”   GIZELLE LUGO

WHO CAN’T VOTE THIS NOVEMBER? “For the first time in my life, I felt like a totally free person,” says 64-year-old Walter Lomax, reflecting on his first time voting after thirty-nine years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. That was back in 2007, when he was living in Maryland, a state where the formerly incarcerated can have their voting rights restored. But since he moved to Virginia, Lomax is again barred from voting, possibly for life, thanks to a state law that strips current and former felons of their voting rights. (Since Lomax was never officially exonerated, his criminal record remains intact.) “Here, I’m just a convicted felon, and I feel that,” he says.

Now executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, Lomax is one of nearly 6 million Americans with criminal convictions who will not be allowed to vote in November, according to the Sentencing Project. Most have served their time or are on probation or parole. Almost half (2.6 million) come from just eleven states where voting rights can be denied for life. Black Americans like Lomax are disproportionately affected: one in thirteen voting-age African-Americans is barred from voting, compared with one in forty adults overall.

Felon disenfranchisement, like other aspects of the criminal justice system, is rooted in America’s racist past. As Michelle Alexander writes in her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: “More (African American men) are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.” Literacy tests barred Lomax’s father from voting in Virginia. Today, Alexander concludes, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The implications are significant. A 2002 study conducted by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found the results of seven Senate races would have been reversed had people with felony convictions been able to vote. Democrats had the most to lose: the authors believe Al Gore would have decisively won the presidency in 2000 had Florida’s former felons been allowed to vote.

Felon disenfranchisement doesn’t just undermine democracy as a whole; it also robs individuals of their right to representation. Khawaja Marzuq, a 39-year-old black man in Richmond, Virginia, who was charged with a felony as a teenager and has thus never been allowed to vote, said it best: “I need for my vote to count so someone can represent me.”   RANIA KHALEK

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