U.S. ‘has not yet reached the mountaintop,’ says new civil rights commission chair

“We have not yet reached the mountaintop. I am deeply grateful that it is my job to help us get there and to push every day as hard as I can so that we will,” Catherine Lhamon, the new chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says.

Since President Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, he has issued roughly two dozen executive orders and sent dozens more tweets.

Many of those actions have dealt with issues of civil justice, which has made Catherine Lhamon’s introduction to her new job as the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights eventful, to say the least.

“It is our job on the commission to be the federal eyes and ears for every American every day on every issue that affects civil rights,” said Lhamon, who led the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under the Obama administration. “That’s a daunting task but also an enormous privilege.”

In her role, Lhamon wants the commission to identify and propose more U.S. civil rights policy recommendations, to respond to more civil rights complaints and to produce more reports that examine what progress has been made in expanding civil rights nationwide and what challenges remain.

“We are in a present where we have not yet reached the mountaintop,” Lhamon told PBS NewsHour.

The commission, established six decades ago by Congress, will convene Feb. 24 for its first meeting since Mr. Trump’s inauguration. The agenda includes testimony from Karen Korematsu, whose father, Fred Korematsu, was sent to an internment camp during World War II under an executive order issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. Korematsu later challenged the federal government’s authority to round up and imprison citizens and residents solely based on their ethnic heritage.

Lhamon says she will look to continue that fight as Trump cracks down on who can enter the country and how they are vetted.

“I’m very grateful that the courts have stepped in to take appropriate action to make sure that we can satisfy our nation’s core democratic principles. That is democracy working well,” Lhamon says of the immigration ban.

An early executive order from Trump that temporarily banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations was suspended by a federal court. But Lhamon says her office will be looking at any revisions Trump makes to that order going forward.

“It is well within the commission’s mission to examine whether religious animus drives government action, to examine whether national origin discrimination drives government action, and to make recommendations for change,” Lhamon says.

READ MORE: Immigration ban reveals a nation divided

Trump is also cracking down on those living in the U.S. illegally. Immigrations Customs and Enforcements officials, under a new series of memos from the Department of Homeland Security, are more aggressively detaining those they believe to be undocumented immigrants. Recent raids conducted by ICE rounded more than 600 people in a week, though officials said those raids are no different than those carried out under President Barack Obama.

Some of these actions, including an 8-year prison sentence for a woman accused of voter fraud earlier this month, have made people fearful, Lhamon says.

The decision by a Texas judge to sentence Rosa Maria Ortega — a permanent resident who came to the United States as an infant — to eight years in prison for voter fraud can be seen by some as a political verdict, Lhamon said, one that could propel Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.

One of the reasons we continue to have issues getting people to the polls is fear, Lhamon says.

Trump complained about voter fraud shortly after he took office. But the White House canceled an event that was supposed to launch that investigation, CNN reported; it has not rescheduled that event.

If there’s voter fraud, the U.S. should protect against it. But research has shown that’s not the case. It’s “offensive and dangerous to suggest there is rampant voter fraud” in a country that still struggles to secure voter access to the polls.In 2016, fewer than two-thirds of eligible U.S. voters cast their ballots, according to the United States Elections Project.

Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists worked to secure the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and wanted to see a world without poverty or war, said Clayborne Carson, who directs the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

“King would be disappointed that so much of (our) energy is devoted to defending past civil rights gains rather than envisioning (and) expanding human rights throughout the world,” Carson wrote the NewsHour.

Lhamon’s life is an outgrowth of that movement. Her African-American mother rode in the back of the bus and attended segregated schools. It was illegal to marry her husband, Lhamon’s white father, in the state of Virginia. Lhamon wants her own children grow up “in a more equal America.”

“I am deeply grateful that it’s my job to help us get there,” she said.