June 28, 2012 - League of United Latin American Citizens

June 28, 2012

Orlando, Florida

League of United Latin American Citizens

It is an honor to address you, the members of the nation’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization.

It is great to be back in Florida where I grew up and spent much of my career in public service. Thank you.

It is a real honor to speak to you today and a privilege to appear alongside Attorney General Holder, with whom we have been working to alleviate the expanding problem of human trafficking. An issue that is particularly devastating to the Latino community.

Be it in the form of young men and women trafficked into this country for commercial sexual exploitation or those facing forced labor and inescapable servitude. His leadership, along with President Obama’s, on this issue has been unwavering. Thank you Attorney General Holder.

I also want to recognize the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. the United States. We are pleased that the Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of Arizona's immigration law. What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform.  A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system – it’s part of the problem.

At the same time, we remain concerned about the remaining provision of the Arizona law that requires local law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they even suspect to be here illegally. The Court made clear that Arizona may not use Section 2 to engage in racial profiling.

And going forward, we must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of American citizens by targeting them just because of the color of their skin. 

The President will work with anyone in Congress who’s willing to make progress on comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our economic and security needs, and upholds our tradition as a nation both of laws and of immigrants.

We can solve these challenges not in spite of our most cherished values – but because of them.  What makes us American is not what we look like or what our names are.

What makes us American is our shared belief in the enduring promise of this country – and our shared responsibility to leave it more generous and more hopeful than we found it.

We can no longer afford to wait for real reform on these issues. We have waited too long. The President had indicated time and again that he is ready to work with Congress. The time to find a more long-term solution is now. 

As leaders in the Latino community, you are well aware of the issues and challenges facing your individual communities.

I am here today, on behalf of President Obama and Secretary Sebelius to let you know that this administration stands with you in your efforts to find and implement solutions.

Study after study shows us that the many difficult issues Americans are grappling with every day disproportionately affect Latinos.

From the economy to health care, and clearly on immigration policy, we have to do more for, and better by, our Latino citizens and those undocumented Latinos who DREAM of a better life as full members of the American family.

We have to. One in six Americans is Latino, which means Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States.

By the year 2050, fully one third of this great nation, approximately 133 million people, will be of Latino descent or heritage….Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and many others.

As a nation we can no longer afford to ignore the very real concerns of Latinos and the issues your very diverse but interwoven communities face. From 2005, when the economic downturn began, to 2009, the median wealth of Hispanics in the U.S. fell by 66 percent. That’s the largest decline in wealth of any racial or ethnic group in the country.

Latinos were also disproportionately affected by unemployment, where 11.3 percent of your community was without gainful employment, while the national average is 9.1 percent. We need to construct policies that reflect our national commitment  to equality, fairness and most of all, access.

We need to enact programs that give families the tools, training and resources they need to lift themselves up out of poverty and toward economic self-sufficiency. President Obama, Secretary Sebelius and I are committed to doing just that.

To that end, we are working to alleviate poverty and create more opportunities for vulnerable Americans in all communities.

The best way to help a family lift itself up from crushing poverty to economic self-sufficiency is to provide that family, all families, with access to quality health care and quality public education. Going without health care is a costly option that will only place a family at greater risk of unemployment, lost wages, and a lack of new opportunity.

A sick man with no health insurance and no access to health care cannot provide for his family. An uneducated mother cannot pass on the power of literacy to her children. A family that has both… has a chance. And they have hope that the American Dream they hear so much about can actually be their own dream.

When we don’t create enough opportunity and access, the downstream effects are distressing.  For example, 32 percent of Latinos lack health insurance and are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be uninsured.

That’s why the President’s Affordable Care Act is so important. We must have a system of health care in this country that does not penalize you for being poor, unemployed or a minority.

The same goes for education, at all levels. Education in this country is quite literally the key to economic success. With it, opportunities abound. Without it, doors will close and access to economic opportunity is denied.

One in five students in our schools is Latino. Young Latino children are much less likely than their peers to have access to preschool and Head Start.

The effects are felt all the way down the line. Latino children are well behind their peers in math and early literacy skills….20 percentage points. Only 58 percent of Latino high school students receive a regular diploma. Just 13 percent of Latinos have attained a bachelor’s degree. 

Your President knows this and he has acted boldly to make sure Latino high school students who dream of a higher education and who may have been facing an uncertain future can rest assured that their dreams will not be deferred, they will be realized.

As the President announced just two weeks ago: These young people study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, and pledge allegiance to our flag.  They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but on paper. 

They were brought to this country by their parents – sometimes even as infants – and yet they live under the threat of deportation to a country they may know nothing about, with a language they may not even speak.

It makes no sense to expel talented young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and contribute to our country simply because of the actions of their parents. 

The President has long supported the DREAM Act – which would ensure these young people who want to fully contribute to our society and serve our country – could legally reside here.  

But Congress hasn’t acted to fix our broken immigration system, so our immigration agencies have had to take action with the limited resources we have.

We’ve learned is that an immigration policy that focuses on high-priority individuals works – it helps us focus our enforcement efforts where they’re most needed.  But it can work even better. 

So today, the Department of Homeland Security is making further improvements.

Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. 

If they meet certain criteria, and do not present a risk to national security or public safety, they soon will be able to request relief from deportation proceedings, and apply for work authorization for a renewable period of two years.

This is not a path to citizenship. This is not amnesty or immunity.  And it’s certainly not a permanent fix.  Only Congress can provide that.  But in the absence of any imminent action from Congress, we’ve got to focus our immigration enforcement resources in the right places.

There’s still time to pass the DREAM Act this year.  And if Congress does so, we can provide a permanent solution for many deserving young people.

As long President Obama is in office, he will not give up on this issue.  We are going to get this done.  Not just because it’s the right thing to do for our economy; not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security; but because it’s the right thing to do, period.

The dividends this country reaps from this humane response will be immense.

Look around you if you want to see the positive contributions of Latino scholars, Latino business people, Latino elected official and community leaders.

Look at some of the greatest cities in this country, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix…All cities with large and thriving Latino communities.

The richness brought to this state and this area is imbued with Latino culture and Latino leadership. This state and many others are more vibrant, more exciting places because of the Latino citizens who call them home.

It is our diversity that makes us better as a people, not worse. It is our diversity that makes us richer as a society, not poorer. It is our diversity that makes us stronger as a country, not weaker.

The Administration on Children and Families is not just talking the talk of diversity; we’re walking the walk.  It was not always so.  Our traditional means of program delivery left many Latino communities out. No longer.

We have listened to concerns raised by this group and other Latino civil rights advocates, and we are making positive efforts to increase inclusiveness in our programs and operations.

If we’re going to change the statistics I mentioned before, we have to change the way we do business. It is not just your responsibility. It is ours too.

Thanks to Latino professionals within the agency working with Latino leaders from around the country, we have begun to expand the reach of Head Start and other early learning programs.

Together we are identifying areas where non-profits from your communities can become more involved in the grant making and funding process. It has been proven time and again that culturally competence programs work better than those that aren’t.

Agency personnel are also working with Latino leaders to identify career opportunities within the department and then to disseminate those job notices to your communities so we can diversify our workforce.

You told us we needed to do it, we heard you and we are doing it. Working together to solve our common problems, it’s really not as difficult as some would have you believe.

Another issue that requires our immediate and sustained attention is that of families who are being affected by detention and deportation.

This issue of family separation is of great concern to President Obama and to me. This Administration is strongly committed to enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, but we cannot allow a child with a loving, caring parent to get caught up in the foster care system due to a parent’s detention or deportation. 

And that is the dilemma. If they were coming into care, we could provide wrap-around services for those families. But since they are not in the system, we can’t. And believe me, it would do no one any good to add to that family’s level of trauma by removing those children from their homes.

Instead, we are working with community leaders to help identify these families and inform them that there are a variety of agencies that can offer assistance with no risk to them. 

Personal story from visits to McAllen and Weslaco to meet with migrant families and Head Start Centers and the hospitals.

Not only is this the right thing to do morally, it also makes more sense. By fully engaging that family, the quicker they can and will become more self-sufficient again.

Children of detainees didn’t do anything wrong. They go to school and pledge allegiance to the flag, sing the national anthem, and believe in their heart that they are American. They are as American as any other child who grew up here.

And to those who would disagree, I would ask them by what authority and on what grounds?

I would remind them of humanity’s responsibility from the 82nd Psalm to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy, and deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

As the economy begins to show signs of recovery, we need to make sure those who need relief the most actually get to share in that recovery. Especially those already working at its margins to make sure food is on our tables, and who perform the thousands of other thankless, back-breaking, but necessary jobs to keep the American economy rolling.

That’s why this administration believes in investing in everyone’s future, not just those already on their way up or at the top.

As President Obama said to Latino elected officials here in Orlando last week: “Hungry people, striving people, dreamers, risk-takers.  People don’t come here looking for handouts.  We are a nation of strivers and climbers and entrepreneurs -- the hardest-working people on Earth.  And nobody personifies these American values, these American traits, more than the Latino community.  That’s the essence of who you are.”

He’s right. And that means every dollar invested in a Latino community yields a high return. We’re seeing that return with our programs that reach mothers who need child care in order to work. We’re seeing that return with our programs that allow men and women to get valuable training in the health professions.

We’re seeing that return with our programs that allow assistance dollars to be used to keep the lights and electricity on while a family gets back on its feet. These are investments that allow people to focus on working toward a better future.

Can we do more?  Yes. Must we do more? Yes. Will we do more? Yes.

That brings me to another area where we need your help, your insights and your shared commitment-- our anti-poverty programs. It is no secret in America that minority communities are among the most underserved in just about every meaningful category from education to health care and economic development.

The Latino community is no exception. As mentioned, there are many health, educational and economic indices where the numbers can appear to be bleak. But that is not saying there are not great leaders and resources in the Latino community; quite the opposite. You, the members of LULAC, have for more than 87 years advocated and fought for a vibrant and hopeful future.

We must work together to build upon the Latino community’s non-profit capacity and private sector involvement. We must work together to ensure that our programs, administered by your agencies in your communities, reach the maximum number of people who are eligible. 

And we must work with those who are eligible to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them. As the great labor leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, said, “From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”

Perhaps the most significant issue facing the greater Latino community today, is one that we’ve only just begun to discuss. To solve it, we will need your help and input—that issue is the increasing number of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America. Looking to escape deplorable conditions in their neighborhoods and towns, these youngsters brave a journey that would test the bravest man or woman’s strength and resolve.

They often arrive here after being victimized by the very people hired to transport them here. Along the way they have been subjected to all manner of physical, mental and sexual abuse. They arrive here without money and, often, only a name of a relative or an address.

Their numbers have increased dramatically this year. Imagine the trauma these children have been and are suffering. Working with the Border Patrol, Immigration and the Justice Department, we have been able to provide a temporary safe haven for these children…to  feed them, provide basic medical and mental health care and begin the process of reuniting them with family.

These are but short-term solutions to a child’s long-term needs. On my watch, I will guarantee you that these children will be treated humanely and with the utmost compassion. But this is still not enough. We must and will do more.

Now is not the time to waver in our commitment to a better future for all Americans. For nearly 90 years, you have courageously fought for a better tomorrow for Latino Americans. The legacy of strong leaders such as Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta and LULAC’s Ben Garza (LULAC’s first president) and Belen Robles (LULAC’s first female president) is one of inclusion, fairness and opportunity.

A legacy you have been entrusted to carry on—a legacy that is embraced by this administration in theory and in practice. I want to close with a quote from Robert Kennedy regarding the American mystique: "Time and time again the American people, facing danger and seemingly insurmountable odds, have mobilized the ingenuity, resourcefulness, strength, and bravery to meet the situation and triumph.

“In this long and critical struggle…. We must continue to prove to the world that we can provide a rising standard of living for all men without the loss of civil rights or human dignity to any man.”

Thank you and God bless you all.