These are tough times for our country and it is absolutely essential that we involve more people in the political process and that we provide a voice for those people who have no voice, for those people who are in the shadows, and that we engage in serious debate on serious issues and that is exactly what La Raza has been doing and will do and I thank you very much for that.
This morning in the brief time that I have I want to focus on three issues: I want to talk about the stain of racism in this country, I want to talk about the need for real immigration reform and I want to talk about economic policies that address the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America and the need to create an economy that works for all of us and not just a handful of billionaires.
Brothers and sisters, throughout history, for whatever reason (and I’m not a psychiatrist) racism has been a stain on human existence. As Janet mentioned, I lost many members of my family in Europe to Hitler and we know that all over this world including the United States, including North America, racism has existed and has done terrible, terrible things. And this issue was raised, interestingly enough, just a few days ago when Pope Francis, one of the very great leaders in this world today, stated and I quote “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Racism has plagued the United States since its inception. The atrocities committed against the native people are unspeakable as is the abomination of slavery perpetrated against people of African descent. Millions of people died as a result of that racism and that exploitation of one group of people thinking they are superior to another group of people because of differences of color or of language or of customs. But racism in our country has not only impacted Native Americans and African Americans as you all know, it has impacted people who’ve come to this country from Asia, from Ireland, from Italy, from countries from all over the world. Racism has plagued this country for centuries. We should be proud however, that in recent decades we have made significant progress, real progress in overcoming racism and in defeating it, in creating a country where we judge people, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, not on the color of their skin, not on the language they speak, not on the country where they came from, but on their character and qualities as human beings. We are making progress in this country and there will be no turning back and let me be very clear in stating that no one, not Donald Trump, not anyone else will be successful in dividing us based on race or our country of origin.
American becomes a greater nation, a stronger nation when we stand together as one people and in a very loud and clear voice we say no to all forms of racism and bigotry. As Janet mentioned, I know something about immigration because my Dad came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without much of an education and without knowing the English language. Like immigrants before and since, he worked hard to give his family a better life here in the United States. He never made much money. We lived in a three and a half room rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York but he worked hard, my mom worked hard and they were able to create a situation where their two kids went to college. Their story. my story, your story, our story is the story of America, hardworking families coming to the United States to create a brighter future for their kids. 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. My remarks this morning will focus on issues of specific relevance for the Latino community but also issues important to all Americans. But when we talk about the Latino community, and in fact when we talk about America, one critical piece that must be talked about is the need to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
Today we have 11 million people in this country who are undocumented, 99% of whom came to this country to improve their lives, to escape oppression, to flee desperate poverty and violence. Let us be frank, today’s undocumented workers play an extraordinarily important role in our economy. Without these folks it is likely that our agricultural system would collapse. Undocumented workers are doing the extremely difficult work of harvesting our crops, building our homes, cooking our meals and caring for our children. They are part of the fabric of America.
Let me very briefly tell you my experience, one of my experiences with undocumented workers. In 2007 I heard about horrendous exploitation in Immokalee, Florida where undocumented workers grow tomatoes and on the day that I arrived in Immokalee, Florida, amazingly enough, the U.S. Attorney there was indicting some people on slavery, people being held in slavery, forced to work against their will. I saw the conditions of workers working horrendously long hours at very low wages, very bad working conditions, awful housing and I’m happy to say that with people working together we made some progress. Today workers there get better wages, get better working conditions and better housing.
Eleven million people came to this country, who are today undocumented so that they could feed their families, escape gang violence and desperate economic circumstances. Let me also be very clear, that people came to this country because they knew that there were jobs here and if anyone thinks that employers throughout this country did not know that the workers that they were hiring were undocumented, they know nothing about what has gone on in this country for 50 years.
So where do we go from here? Well, I supported the 2013 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Legislation in the U.S. Senate. While a complicated piece of comprehensive legislation like this can always be improved and should be improved, I believe there should be a responsible path to citizenship so individuals can come out of the shadows, people can walk the streets with safety, people can hold their heads high, so that people can have the protection of the law and participate fully and openly in American society. The Senate bill attempted to accomplish this important goal and the time is long overdue for the U.S. House of Representatives to take up immigration reform. The Senate bill contained the provisions of The DREAM Act which I strongly support and which would offer the opportunity of permanent residency and eventual citizenship to young people who are 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 be in the country they know as home.
This is not to say that I do not have significant criticisms of this long and complicated bill. I believe the pathway to citizenship was unnecessarily linked to border security triggers, measures that many believe were put in place so that the path to citizenship would be delayed or even denied for the millions of undocumented individuals here and I want to change those provisions. I also believe that the penalties and fines in the bill would be a bar for the poor, essentially preventing them from accessing the path to legal residency and eventual citizenship. To be meaningful, a pathway to citizenship needs to be achievable for the millions of workers at the lower end of the economic ladders. These and other barriers in the bill, including the years, often more than a decade that it would take to achieve citizenship make it a flawed piece of legislation and needs to be improved. Until we can pass comprehensive immigration 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 using the presidential power of executive order when it is appropriate. While the Senate passed the DREAM act in its immigration bill and while the House has not acted.I think president Obama did exactly the right thing through his executive order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was a good first step but should be expanded, deferred action should include the parents of citizens, parents of permanent legal residents and the parents of DREAMers. We should be pursuing policies that unite families, not tear them apart.
Let me now touch on a broader issue which impacts all Americans but especially lower income people, whether Latino, African American, White, Native American, Asian or whatever. And here is the reality: The reality is that for the last 40 years, the great middle class of this country has been disappearing and this has accelerated since the Wall Street crash of 2008. And while millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, there is another reality that we have got to put on the table, and that is that almost all of the new wealth and income being created in America today and the last many years has gone to the top 1% – and that’s wrong. It is not acceptable that we have today the highest rate of income and wealth inequality at a time when millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. It is not acceptable that youth unemployment in this country has reached tragic proportions. The Economic Policy Institute recently told us that if you look at young people from 17 to 20 who are either unemployed or working part time when they want to work full time or have given up looking for work; for white kids that number is 33%, for Hispanic kids it is 36%, for African-American kids it is 51%. That is unacceptable and maybe, just maybe, instead of building more jails and locking up more people, maybe just maybe we should be investing in jobs and education for our young people.
I want America to be known as the country with the best educated population in the world, not the country with the more people in jail than any other country. And that is why I have introduced legislation both for young people and the general population that creates millions of decent paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel. But when we talk about the problems of America it is not only jobs, it is income. We need to raise the minimum wage, which today is a starvation wage of seven and a quarter ($7.25) to 15 bucks ($15) an hour so that anyone who works in this country does not live in poverty. When you talk about the future of America, we talk about the need to compete in a highly competitive global economy and if we are going to compete effectively we need the best educated workforce in the world. And today in America we have the shameful situation of hundreds of thousands of bright, qualified young people who want to go to college but who can’t go to college because their families do not have enough money. That is grossly unfair to those young people and it is grossly unfair and dumb for the future of the American economy and that is why I have introduced legislation which would make public colleges and public universities tuition free. I want to see everyone in this country who has the ability, who has the desire, to be able to get the kinds of education they need and our legislation also deals with the crisis of millions of people struggling under student debt and outrageously high interest rates.
In my view, furthermore, to be a great country our government has got to start protecting working families and not just wealthy campaign contributors and that means policies that end voter suppression. There are politicians who are simply cowardly and are unafraid to face the people because they know their ideas do not represent the majority and the only way they win is by creating situations to make it difficult for people to vote. I want to see us have the highest voter turnout in the world. I want to see us make it easier for people to vote, not harder for people to vote.
The United States is the only major industrialized country that does not guarantee medical and parental leave for its people. That’s wrong. When a woman has a baby, regardless of her income, she should be able to stay home with that baby and not be forced to go back to work.
We need to overturn this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision which allows billionaires to buy elections. And brothers and sisters, we need to create a health care system in this country, and I’m a strong supporter, I voted for the Affordable Care Act – but it doesn’t go far enough. Every major industrial country guarantees health care to all of its people as a right and so should we in the United States of America.
Let me conclude my remarks by simply saying this: We are, in America today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world but most people don’t know that because almost all of the wealth rests in the hand of the few so what I would like you to do is to think big, not small. Think of a nation in which every working parent has quality and affordable child care. Think of a nation, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, where every person regardless of income can get all the education that they need. Think of a nation, not where youth unemployment is over 30% but where all of our kids are either in school or getting good job training or have quality jobs. And lastly but not leastly, think of a nation where every person in this country, no matter their race, no matter their country of origin, no matter their religion, no matter their disability, no matter their sexual orientation, that all of us come together to create the greatest country that anyone has ever seen, a country which works for all of our people and we do it when we stand together and we do not allow people to divide us, divide us, divide us. Thank you all very much.