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Lawmaker: 'We Need to Speak the Truth' About Automation

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. // Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Legislators should be more upfront with constituents about the fate of their jobs, according to California Sen. Kamala Harris.

“People are feeling a sense of distrust of authority, of institutions, of their government,” she said at the Code Conference hosted by Recode in California. Lawmakers need to be clear about how automation like driverless cars will eliminate jobs.

“The jobs that employed large numbers of people around driving something on wheels will not exist, be it a truck, be it a UPS driver or a postal worker or a cab driver," she said. "We have to speak truth about that."

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Harris called for members of Congress to be transparent about the future of coal-mining jobs. Even if they prioritize the coal industry over other renewable energy sources to preserve jobs, “we’re going to automate that even if we’re going to keep coal mines open," she said.

Widespread automation is inevitable, Harris said.

“We need to have a better plan for America’s workforce that transitions them into the 21st-[century] economy,” including high-skilled technology or renewable energy jobs, she said.

Harris also urged lawmakers and senior officials to meet with immigrants before drafting bills and executive orders restricting their entry into the United States. President Donald Trump issued an executive order tasking the Homeland Security Department with reforming the H-1B visa program, which allows domestic businesses to hire foreign workers instead of citizens or residents for certain high-skilled jobs. Trump’s White House, along with lawmakers including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have advocated for reducing the number of H-1B visas assigned.

As home to one of the nation’s largest population of immigrants, California has “an outsize stake in the outcome of this conversation,” Harris said. Yet, many legislators “do not have any experience with this population and they also seem…[to] have just forgotten the history of our country," she said. 

Too often lawmakers often the public a “false choice,” she said. “The inference is, ‘those people are taking your jobs so we’re going to build a wall and cut off H-1B visas.' And because those people have taken your jobs, by virtue of sealing them off, we’re now going to give them back to you.”

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