The last year has been one of the most complicated for the entire world. Particularly in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis have put the Biden-Harris administration in a complicated position.
BELatina News had the honor to speak to Guatemalan-American White House Deputy Communication Director Pili Tobar about the Biden-Harris Administration’s first year.
From passing the “I Am Vanessa Guillen Act” executive order to advancements on student loan forgiveness, we asked the most pressing questions.
What progress has been made by the Biden-Harris administration this first year?
I think this administration and the President came into office with a huge challenge, dealing with a couple of different crises: the pandemic and the economic crisis. We’re dealing with climate issues and with equity issues as well.
It was a big challenge coming in, but one that we’ve been able to, I think, meet pretty well. Obviously, there’s still work to be done, but I think we’ve made advancements in a lot of different areas. We’ve created 6.4 million jobs. And more by the day. We’ve been able to deliver hundreds of thousands of millions of vaccines. Whereas when we came in, only about two million people had been vaccinated at that point. And we’re seeing just this past week that our economy grew the most that it has since 1984. So especially for a period of time as tumultuous and difficult as this past year has been, it’s clear that the President’s policies are working and getting people back to work and helping people stay safer and out of the hospitals as well.
With respect to that pandemic strategy, the Administration has been able to provide rapid in-home testing, but is there a plan for the homeless?
I don’t have anything right now that I can preview for you, but what I can say is, yes, you can go on the website and apply for your four tests. But we are working hand-in-hand with cities, local governments, and governors. And so you can also see in a variety of different places across the country how localities are responding to that.
In some cases, like here in D.C., you can actually go to different locations and pick up some of these rapid tests yourself as well. So we’re continuing to look for ways for people to access tests and to access masks.
Can you tell us more about the “I Am Vanessa Guillen Act” executive order that just passed?
Yes, the President actually just signed this order. Basically, we’re trying to make sure that sexual assault cases in the military are being handled correctly. And so, the president signed the order to basically amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice in response to gender-based violence. It just took delivery on like key recommendations from a commission that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin launched last year. This was also included in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) in Congress.
And like you said yourself, it is in honor of army specialist Vanessa Guillen. Basically, it establishes sexual harassment as a specific offense under the Code of Military Justice. So it strengthens the military response and prosecuting cases of domestic violence and implements changes to the Military Justice Code to criminalize the also like the wrongful just like broadcast or distribution of some of these intimate visual images. So it advances the president’s commitment to the victims of sexual assault and sexual violence. And in this case, honoring somebody who fought for this country and who unfortunately was the victim of some of this as well.
Is there a new strategy for student loan forgiveness?
So in terms of student loans, we are in the middle of another extension of the student loan repayment pause, which extends until May 1st. So we will continue to do this just so that people can recover from the pandemic and make sure that students can do so without the concern of having to make some of these cases, like pretty big payments. However, we’re also trying to make sure that we are creating tools available. This way, loans go back into repayment on May 1st, and we can also ensure that students have the tools required to pay their student loans and make sure that what they’re paying is something that they can afford.
What can you tell us about the USCIS (the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) appointment shortages?
So basically, what went on is that under the previous administration, USCIS was essentially decimated. So, even like the personnel of people that worked at USCIS, who helped make sure that we are processing visas, that we are processing backup applications, that we are processing green cards, all these different things. They left the agency without money, without the necessary forces to operate. And so part of what we’ve seen this year is that the director of USCIS, Ur M. Jaddou, is working tirelessly to make sure that we can rebuild the agency and that we can resuscitate it. And that people who are trained correctly can do and complete all these different jobs and tasks. But it’s taking a little bit of time. In the meantime, as a repercussion of all of this, there is a backlog in some of the processing. It’s something that we’re working really hard to fix.
What can we expect to happen regarding the pandemic moving forward?
We will continue providing sources. We’re making sure that folks can access tests when they need them, get the results as fast as possible, and have the personal protective equipment that they need so that they can take care of themselves and their families. But one thing that we have to remember is that there are still a lot of folks who are still not vaccinated. So you are going to continue hearing from us and hearing from the president and the vice president that we need people to get vaccinated. The only way we’re going to get through this is together. And if we make sure that people have their shot, that people have the protection that these vaccines give us, and continue to push those around us who, for one reason or another, haven’t gotten it yet. That’s the only path out of this. And so we’ll keep messaging on that and obviously providing the resources that folks need to be able to go back to work and for kids to go to school safely. But also, you know, for small businesses, we provided a lot of relief through AARP for them to be able to get through the pandemic. And I think you’ll continue seeing a lot of actions like that to make sure that people can not just go back to the way things were, but actually be able to, as we said, build back better from that and and and be able to to keep going.