New Delhi: Indian-origin American senator Kamala Harris rose to second place in the US Democratic presidential candidacy race last week, after her standout performance in the first presidential debate.
Front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden, surprisingly, has lost a significant amount of support. Biden had been the favourite Democrat for a long time to face President Donald Trump in the 2020 race for the White House. His history of working with former President Barack Obama and his argument of being able to woo white men in the Midwest had held considerable appeal — the demographic that Trump had however managed to capture to win the 2016 elections.
This year, there are a record six female candidates contending for the leadership position.
If Harris wins the nomination, she will be the second woman to do so after Hillary Clinton and the first woman of colour as well as the first American of Indian heritage.
ThePrint takes a closer look at who she is, and her stance on immigration, gender pay gap and other issues.
Who is Kamala Harris?
Kamala Devi Harris was born in 1964 in California when the US civil rights movement was going on. Her father, Donald Harris, is a prominent economics professor at Stanford University who had immigrated from Jamaica. Her mother, Dr Shyamala Gopalan, was a breast cancer researcher. Her parents separated when Harris was seven and she grew up with her mother and sister in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Berkeley.
Her mother, originally from Chennai, took Harris to Hindu temples while growing up. She has been to India several times to visit her relatives.
There are about 2.5 million Indian-Americans in the US, the second largest immigrant group after Mexicans. Indian-Americans are significantly more educated than other migrant groups in the US and have higher household incomes.
Harris attended Howard University, one of the few historically black universities in the US, where she led the Black Law Students’ Association. She later became the first woman and the first African-American or a person of South Asian descent to be elected as the district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. She was also the first woman or African-American attorney general of California in 2010. She has had a long career prosecuting murders, robberies, and sex crimes.
In 2016, she became the second woman US senator of African-American or Asian descent. Her political career has focused on crime and law enforcement, homeowners’ rights and immigration.
She announced her bid to run for the presidency in January.
Harris has been subjected to racial harassment for not being an “American black”. This is reminiscent of the “birther” attacks on Obama, where Trump and others had spread rumours that the former president was not born in the US and therefore not eligible to run for the presidency (it was later proven that Obama was born in Hawaii and the movement was discredited).
She has also been subjected to sexism — Obama himself had once called her “the best-looking attorney general” which he later apologised for.
Harris is often referred to as a “female Barack Obama”, as both lawmakers are Democrats, have legal backgrounds and are of mixed race. However, critics have decried these comparisons as derivative that ignore her unique characteristics as a politician and a lawmaker.
Harris is married to Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer from New York. Her memoir, ‘The Truths We Hold’, was published in January.
Tough stance on crime and law enforcement
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Harris is her tough stance on crime and a contradictory history with criminal justice reform.
She has pushed for laws that gave first-time drug offenders education and employment opportunities instead of a prison sentence. San Francisco attorneys can only prosecute felons under the “third strike” law – which stipulates that on a third felony offence, criminals can earn a prison sentence of 25 years or a life term for violent crimes.
These progressive policies contrast with her tougher stance on anti-truancy laws, which threaten parents of children who fail to attend class with prison sentences, and her push to retain prisoners for longer sentences despite a US Supreme Court finding that prison overpopulation in California was so severe that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
“I held the system accountable and got those kids back in school – not by sending people to jail, but by getting families the resources they needed because those children deserved justice,” Harris had earlier said, defending her position shortly after she expressed regret for the “unintended consequences” of the law.
As German Lopez points out for the Vox that many of Harris’ ‘tough on crime’ policies were enacted in an era when “that was the norm”.
Also, her race and gender have invited intense scrutiny not faced by her predominantly white and male peers, forcing her to pick her battles.
Stance on immigration
Harris has been outspoken about Trump’s immigration policies, which have been notoriously tough on illegal immigrants. Her home state of California has the largest immigrant population in the country, both legal and illegal, and as the migrant crisis in the US-Mexico border grows this has become a key policy issue for every candidate.
Thousands of migrants, predominantly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (as well as Mexico and India) have been apprehended at the border this year while attempting to cross it illegally and claim asylum in the US.
Many are fleeing political repression, poverty, and violence. When they arrive at the border, they are either turned away or kept in detention centres that congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called concentration camps.
Congress has been unable to pass legislation bringing forth immigration reforms, causing a backlog of migrants waiting to be processed and severe overcrowding in facilities that were not designed to house so many people. Harris has stated that she would use executive orders to pass necessary reforms to prevent deportation and inhumane treatment at the border.
Equal pay and financial support
Harris has promised to close the pay gap between teachers as well as prosecutors. She has proposed penalties for companies that do not close the gender-wage gap. Under her proposal, firms will have to provide salary data and will be fined a percentage of their profits if the gender pay gap is not closed.
She has also proposed to give middle-class families a monthly stipend. Critics have said that it comes very close to universal basic income but doesn’t quite amount to it. The US spends more than most wealthy countries on programs to alleviate poverty, and her plan aims to remedy that. She has also proposed stipends for lower-income people to receive job training.
Kamala Harris’s Choices: The New Yorker
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