Speaking Up for the Voiceless
In June 2018, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was preparing to sue the Trump administration for separating undocumented immigrant families at the southwest border of the U.S., when a lawyer called her into a conference room to meet a thirty-year-old Guatemalan woman named Angélica, who had come to Massachusetts weeks earlier.
Fleeing violence in her home country, Angélica and her seven-year-old daughter had been detained just before Mother’s Day, Healey told a Tufts audience on December 3 during her Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series lecture.
“Happy Mother’s Day. You may never see your daughter again,” an ICE agent had reportedly told Angelica, before taking her daughter away to a detention facility in Texas. As Angélica cried in Healey’s arms, Healey could only think of one thing to tell her: “That stuff’s going down in Washington—but we’re your government, too.”
In her talk, moderated by Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry, Healey asked her Tufts audience to remember the same thing: that every time Trump acts to curtail the rights, resources, and freedom of vulnerable people, Healey and her fellow attorneys general and a legion of public servants will be there to push back.
“If we don’t sue Betsy DeVos when she wants to let debt collectors and predatory loan servicers and predatory for-profit schools back into the education business, if we’re not there to stop the EPA as it seeks to subsidize coal at the expense of renewables and seeks to roll back important regulations that are there to protect our air and water and soil—who will?” said Healey, a former prosecutor, litigation partner, and chief of the Massachusetts’ Attorney General’s civil rights division who is the first openly gay attorney general in the U.S. “And if we don’t stop them from messing around with the census, which is fundamentally an effort to disenfranchise swaths of the population, who will?”
Healey recalled her message to Trump at the Women’s March in Boston last January, the day after Trump’s inauguration: “If you make good on any number of your illegal and unconstitutional campaign promises, we’ll see you in court.”
“Even I didn’t expect that to be so often or so soon, but here we are,” Healey said, to laughter from the crowd. “I don’t wish for or want the opportunity to wake up and sue the president of the United States every day; I’d rather be doing other things. But if we don’t do that now, in this time—nobody else will be there.”
Responding to a student’s question about Trump’s proposed changes to the public charge determination process for immigrants, Healey didn’t hesitate. “A decision like this is really in the wrong direction economically and certainly as a matter of fairness,” Healey said. “And that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from doing any number of things. The fact is that it’s counter to science, facts, fairness, economic principles that are sound—which is why we are prepared to go to court.”
To another student question about former FBI director and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Healey said, “We have a president right now who thinks he’s above the law and thinks he can operate outside the law. Everyone in the country is subject to the law.”
Healey recounted her decision to lead her fellow attorneys general two weeks ago in calling for the removal of acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker—whom Trump appointed despite federal law governing the order of succession for that position, and who has spoken against the Mueller investigation.
“The president knows no bounds and will stop at nothing to protect himself and his family,” Healey said. “A lot of continued pressure must be brought on Congress to make sure the right steps are taken to protect the Mueller investigation, because the findings are about the integrity of our democracy.”
On a less political note, Berry asked Healey about her strategy to target drug manufacturers and distributors to help address the opioid crisis. “They are responsible for laying the groundwork and creating the circumstances for the nation’s most devastating public health crisis and epidemic we have seen for a long, long time,” Healey said.
She also spoke about her efforts to rein in doctors prescribing illegal amounts of opioids; work with the state legislature and governor to change how pain medications are prescribed and dispensed; promote Narcan access for first responders; and bring substance abuse education to public middle schools. “There’s no way to put a price on a life, but we have to do all we can to make sure we’re getting all we can for the families affected, and for the communities,” she said.
Healey also weighed in on Massachusetts’ recent reform of cash bail, stating that inability to pay bail is not a basis to keep someone in jail. “There’s a lot else we need to do to make our criminal justice system fair, and address racial and socioeconomic disparities that exist around and throughout the system,” she said.
But she is seeing a growing awareness of society’s responsibility to not just punish, but rehabilitate. “The point is not just to protect victims and hold people accountable—the deterrence function—but to make sure we’re using our resources to effectively address what led the person to commit this act,” she said.
Healey ended her talk with a call to action, addressing the students in the crowd. “You are the future. You’re where the action is at,” she said. “You don’t have to be the person running. It’s not for everyone; I totally get that. But you can help run campaigns, knock on doors, volunteer. Honestly, the power is in your hands.”
Healey urged students to speak up on campus, to apply to intern or work in her office, to run for public office in their communities, to help get people registered and voting, and above all not to become “burdened and jaundiced” by everything going on in politics now. “Don’t let that happen. Resist every urge,” Healey said. “Try not to give way to cynicism.”
By getting involved, students will be meeting a great need, Healey said—and reaping a great reward. “You’re not going to make a lot of money, but you’re going to have tremendous satisfaction and the opportunity to impact people’s lives in tangible ways, day in and day out,” she said. She said she had faith that Tufts graduates will use that power well. “Whatever you do, I know you’ll find ways to give to your communities and make this state and country a better place.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.