Thank you for allowing me to be with you today, and thank you for your willingness to represent your constituents.
Today, I want to talk about two major issues facing our country. The need for comprehensive immigration reform, and the need for an economy which works for all of our people, and not just a handful of people on the top.
It is no great secret that across the United States undocumented workers perform a critical role in our economy. They harvest and process our food and it is no exaggeration to say that, with out them, food production in the United States would significantly decline. Undocumented workers build many of our homes, cook our meals, maintain our landscapes. We even entrust undocumented workers with that which we hold most dear – our children.
Despite the central role they play in our economy and in our daily lives, undocumented workers are reviled by many for political gain and shunted into the shadows. Let me be clear about where I stand. It is time for this disgraceful situation to end. This country faces enormous problems and they will not be solved unless we are united. It is time to end the politics of division on this country, of politicians playing one group of people against another: white against black, male against female, straight against gay, native born against immigrant.
That is why I supported the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the United States Senate. While a complicated piece of comprehensive legislation like this can always be improved I believed then and now that it is time to end the discussion of mass deportation or self-deportation. We cannot and we should not even be talking about sweeping up millions of men, women, and children – many of whom have been here for years – and throwing them out of the country. That’s wrong and that type of discussion has got to end.
Until we can pass comprehensive reform, we must be aggressive in pursuing policies that are humane and sensible and that keep families together. This includes taking measures that are currently available, including reforms through executive action.
I strongly support the Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA a good first step, but should be expanded. Deferred action should include the parents of citizens, parents of legal permanent residents, and the parents of DREAMERs. We should be pursuing policies that unite families – not tear them apart.
I continue to be a strong supporter of the DREAM Act, which would offer the opportunity of permanent residency and eventual citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States as children. It is my belief that we should recognize the young men and women who comprise the DREAMers for what they are – American kids who deserve the right to legally be in the country they know as home.
As is often said, we are a nation of immigrants. For generations, families braved treacherous paths, often fleeing unspeakable poverty and violence, in search of better futures, for better lives for their children.
I, myself, am the son of an immigrant. My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket and without much of an education. Like immigrants before and since, he worked hard to give his family a better life here in the United States. He was a paint salesman and we were solidly lower-middle class. My parents, my brother and I lived together in a small rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York. My mother’s wish – which she never realized – was that we would be able to buy a house of our own and move out of that small apartment. Through my parents hard work both my brother and I went to college.
Their story, my story, our story is a story of America. Hard working families coming to the United States to create a brighter future for their children. It is a story rooted in family and fueled by hope. It is a story that continues to this day in families all across the United States.
Let me tell you that I have seen first-hand the impact of our broken immigration system. In 2008, my U.S. Senate office learned about a crisis occurring with migrant laborers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida. The Immokalee workers were fighting to increase the paltry wages they were receiving for back-breaking work.
Although far from Vermont, in January of 2008, I decided to go there myself and investigate. Armed with a letter of support signed by three of my colleagues – Senators Durbin, Brown, and Kennedy, what I found was a human tragedy. Workers were being paid starvation wages, living in severely substandard housing, and subjected to abusive labor practices. The injustice in the lives of the workers was overwhelming.
In fact, the situation was so bad that on the day I visited two men were indicted for human slavery. Slavery in the 21st century in the United States of America.
My visit to the tomato fields was followed by a hearing in the Senator Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which I sat and which my friend, the late Senator Kennedy chaired. At that hearing, we heard the voices of the workers of Immokalee – workers in America at the lowest rungs of the economic ladders. We heard from people who were ruthlessly exploited, denied decent wages, decent working conditions and decent housing. And that hearing enabled the workers of Immokalee to confront the interests that cheated them and abused them.
I am happy to tell you that this story has a positive ending. The campaign by the Immokalee workers resulted in substantial reforms in the tomato fields of Florida. In the aggregate, workers there have seen their wages increase by millions of dollars and improvement in their working conditions.
But how many more Immokalees are out there? How many fields or factories are there where people – often without legal status – are used up and thrown away? We cannot continue to run an economy where millions are made so vulnerable because of their undocumented status. We have to ask ourselves. Whose interest is it in to keep undocumented workers in the shadows without the protection of the law?
Many in the business community have argued for guest worker programs as the answer to the immigration issue. This concerns me very much.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, guest workers have been routinely cheated out of wages; held virtually captive by employers who have seized their documents; forced to live in unspeakably inhumane conditions; and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries. That is unacceptable.
In the U.S. Senate, I have introduced legislation in 2007 that would authorize the Legal Services Corporation to provide legal representation to guest workers who have been abused by their employers. Further, employers under my bill would be required to reimburse guest workers for transportation expenses and provide workers’ compensation insurance, among other things.
I also opposed tying immigration reform to the building of a border fence. Let me say what most people already know. Undocumented workers come to the United States to escape economic hardship and political persecution.
Undocumented workers looking for economic opportunity come to the United States because there are no jobs where they are coming from, and there are jobs for them here. Plain and simple.
Unfortunately, American policy in Latin America has too often made difficult economic and political problems even worse. Take for example, NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Supporters of NAFTA told us it would increase the standard of living in Mexico and significantly reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants into this country as a result. The opposite was true.
Since the implementation of NAFTA, the number of Mexicans living below the poverty line has increased by over 14 million people. Almost 2 million small famers have been displaced. And in the twenty years since NAFTA growth in per capita GDP has been only half of that experienced by other Latin American nations. Not surprisingly we have seen a 185 percent increase in the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico from 1992 to 2011.
We as a nation have got to realize the importance of dealing not just with the issue of immigration but with the very real refugee crisis we face. It was appalling to me that last year when the papers were full of discussion of the large numbers of unaccompanied children at the borders there were so many voices insisting they be turned away or simply shipped back to their country of origin like a package marked return to sender. America has always been a haven for the oppressed. Is there any group more vulnerable than children? We cannot and must not shirk the historic role of the United States as a protector of vulnerable people fleeing persecution.
The bottom line of all of this is that It is time to bring our neighbors out of the shadows. It is time to give them legal status. It is time to create a reasonable and responsible path to citizenship.
In addition to immigration reform, we must also pursue policies that empower minority communities. This must start with energizing Latinos all across the country to engage in the democratic process and by thwarting efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. Restricting access through draconian voter ID laws and shortening early voting periods are thinly-veiled efforts to marginalize communities of color, low income people and seniors. These policies must be combatted at both the state and federal levels.
But to truly empower our communities, we must address the crippling poverty that affects tens of millions of people in this country. Today, shamefully, we have more than 12 million Latinos living in poverty. That’s nearly one out of every four Latinos in this country. If you are a Latino child, there is nearly a one in three chance (32 percent) that you are growing up in poverty.
Many of those in poverty are working at low-wage jobs. These are the people who struggle every day to find the money to feed their kids, to pay their electric bills and to put gas in the car to get to work.
I believe we need a major federal jobs program to put millions of American back to work. One in four construction workers are Latino, and the fastest way to increase jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, water systems, waste water plants, airports, railroads and schools. It has been estimated that the cost of the Iraq War, a war we should never have waged, will total between $4-6 trillion by the time the last veteran receives needed care. A $1 trillion investment in infrastructure would create 13 million decent paying jobs and make this country more efficient, productive and safer.
We also need to address the crisis of youth unemployment. The real unemployment rate for young Hispanic college graduates is 11%, nearly double the rate of white Americans. For young Hispanics with only a high school degree, the real unemployment rate is 36%.
More than 50,000 Latinos turn 18 every month, and the time is long overdue for us to start investing in our young people, to help them get the jobs and training they need, the education they deserve, so that they can be part of the middle class. It’s time to bring opportunity to communities across the country. I recently introduced legislation to provide $5.5 billion in immediate funding to States and localities to employ 1 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24, and provide job training to hundreds of thousands of other young Americans.
We must also finally address the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street. Financial institutions cannot be an island unto themselves, standing as huge profit centers outside of the real economy. Their speculation and illegal behavior plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, and Latinos were the hardest hit. Latinos were disproportionately steered into subprime loans and around a quarter of Latino borrowers have lost their homes to foreclosure or are seriously delinquent. In my view, Wall Street is too large and powerful to be reformed. The huge financial institutions must be broken up.
In today’s highly competitive global economy, millions of Americans are unable to afford the higher education they need in order to get good-paying jobs. Some of our young people have given up the dream of going to college, while others are leaving school deeply in debt. Many of the countries we compete with understand that free public education should not end at high school. In many European countries, students leave college debt free. That should be the case here in our country. I’ve introduced legislation to make all public colleges in this country tuition free.
What we need to do is invest in the Latino community so that America can reach its full potential. I’m proud to stand with the Latino community and receive a 100% voting score from the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda last Congress.
In short, I believe we can live in a country:
- Where hard working immigrants can have a path to citizenship;
- Where health care is a right, not a privilege;
- Where every parent can have quality and affordable childcare and where all of our qualified young people, regardless of income, can go to college;
- Where every senior can live in dignity and security, and not be forced to choose between their medicine or their food;
- Where every person, no matter their race, their religion, their disability or their sexual orientation realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans.