REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT TO THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF LA RAZA
Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Washington, D.C.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you! Thank you so much. (Applause.) What an extraordinary crowd. Thank you. Please have a seat.
It is good to be back with NCLR. (Applause.) It is good to see all of you.
Right off the bat, I should thank you because I have poached quite a few of your alumni to work in my administration. (Laughter.) They’re all doing outstanding work. Raul Yzaguirre, my ambassador to the Dominican Republic — (applause) — Latinos serving at every level of my administration. We’ve got young people right out of college in the White House. We’ve got the first Latina Cabinet Secretary in history, Hilda Solis. (Applause.) So we couldn’t be prouder of the work that so many folks who’ve been engaged with La Raza before, the handiwork that they’re doing with our administration. And as Janet mentioned, obviously we’re extraordinarily proud of someone who is doing outstanding work on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. (Applause.)
Recently, 100 Latino officials from across the government met with Latino leaders from across the country at the White House. I know some of you were there. And I think all who attended would agree that we weren’t just paying lip service to the community. Our work together, not just that day but every day, has been more than just talk.
What I told the gathering at the White House was we need your voice. Your country needs you. Our American family will only be as strong as our growing Latino community. (Applause.) And so we’re going to take these conversations on the road and keep working with you, because for more than four decades, NCLR has fought for opportunities for Latinos from city centers to farm fields. And that fight for opportunity –- the opportunity to get a decent education, the opportunity to find a good job, the opportunity to make of our lives what we will -– has never been more important than it is today.
And we’re still climbing out of a vicious recession, and that recession hit Latino families especially hard. I don’t need to tell you Latino unemployment is painfully high. And there’s no doubt that this economy has not recovered as fast as it needs to. The truth is it’s going to take more time. And a lot of the problems we face right now, like slow job growth and stagnant wages, these were problems that were there even before the recession hit.
These challenges weren’t caused overnight; they’re not going to be solved overnight. But that only makes our work more urgent — to get this economy going and make sure that opportunity is spreading, to make sure everyone who wants a job can find one, and to make sure that paychecks can actually cover the bills; to make sure that families don’t have to choose between buying groceries or buying medicine; that they don’t have to choose between sending their kids to college or being able to retire.
My number-one priority, every single day, is to figure out how we can get businesses to hire and create jobs with decent wages. And in the short-term, there are some things we can do right away. I want to extend tax relief that we already put in place for middle-class families, to make sure that folks have more money in their paychecks. And I want to cut red tape that keeps entrepreneurs from turning new ideas into thriving businesses. I want to sign trade deals so our businesses can sell more goods made in America to the rest of the world, especially to the Americas.
And the hundreds of thousands of construction workers — many of them Latino — who lost their jobs when the housing bubble burst, I want to put them back to work rebuilding our roads and our bridges and new schools and airports all across the country. There is work to be done. These workers are ready to do it. (Applause.)
So bipartisan proposals for all of these jobs measures would already be law if Congress would just send them to my desk, and I’d appreciate if you all would help me convince them to do it. We need to get it done. We need to get it done. (Applause.)
Now, obviously, the other debate in Washington that we’re having is one that’s going to have a direct impact on every American. Every day, NCLR and your affiliates hear from families figuring out how to stretch every dollar a little bit further, what sacrifices they’ve got to make, how they’re going to budget only what’s truly important. So they should expect the same thing from Washington. Neither party is blameless for the decisions that led to our debt, but both parties have a responsibility to come together and solve the problem and make sure that the American people aren’t hurt on this issue. (Applause.)
I just want to talk about this for a second, because it has a potential impact on everybody here and all the communities you serve. If we don’t address the debt that’s already on our national credit card, it will leave us unable to invest in things like education, to protect vital programs.
So I’ve already said I’m willing to cut spending that we don’t need by historic amounts to reduce our long-term deficit and make sure that we can invest in our children’s future. I’m willing to take on the rising costs of health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid to make sure they’re strong and secure for future generations.
But we can’t just close our deficits by cutting spending. That’s the truth, and Americans understand that. Because if all we all do is cut, then seniors will have to pay a lot more for their health care, and students will have to pay a lot more for college, and workers who get laid off might not have any temporary assistance or job training to get them back on their feet. And with gas prices this high, we’d have to stop much of the clean energy research that will help us free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil.
Not only is it not fair if all of this is done on the backs of middle-class families and poor families, it doesn’t make sense. It may sound good to save a lot of money over the next five years, but not if we sacrifice our future for the next 50.
And that’s why people from both parties have said that the best way to take on our deficit is with a balanced approach –- one where the wealthiest Americans and big corporations pay their fair share, too. (Applause.) Before we stop funding energy research, we should ask oil companies and corporate jet owners to give up special tax breaks that other folks don’t get. (Applause.) Before we ask college students to pay more to go to college, we should ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes that are lower in terms of rates than their secretaries. Before we ask seniors to pay more for Medicare — (applause) — before we ask seniors to pay more for Medicare, we should ask people like me to give up tax breaks that we don’t need and weren’t even asking for. (Applause.)
So, NCLR, that’s at the heart of this debate. Are we a nation that asks only the middle class and the poor to bear the burden? After they’ve seen their jobs disappear and their incomes decline over a decade? Are we a people who break the promises we’ve made to seniors, or the disabled, and leave them to fend for themselves?
That’s not who we are. We are better than that. We’re a people who look out for one another. We’re a people who believe in shared sacrifice, because we know that we rise or fall as one nation. We’re a people who will do whatever it takes to make sure our children have the same chances and the same opportunities that our parents gave us — not just the same chances, better chances, than our parents gave us. That’s the American way.
And that’s what NCLR is all about. That’s what the Latino community is all about. When I spoke to you as a candidate for this office, I said you and I share a belief that opportunity and prosperity aren’t just words to be said, they are promises to be kept. Back then, we didn’t know the depths of the challenges that were going to lie ahead. But thanks to you, we are keeping our promises.
We’re keeping our promise to make sure that America remains a place where opportunity is open to all who work for it. We’ve cut taxes for middle-class workers and small businesses and low-income families. We won credit card reform and financial reform, and protections for consumers and folks who use payday lenders or send remittances home from being exploited and being ripped off. (Applause.)
We worked to secure health care for 4 million children, including the children of legal immigrants. (Applause.) And we are implementing health reform for all who’ve been abused by insurance companies, and all who fear about going broke if they get sick. And these were huge victories for the Latino community that suffers from lack of health insurance more than any other group.
We’re keeping our promise to give our young people every opportunity to succeed. NCLR has always organized its work around the principle that the single most important investment we can make is in our children’s education -– and that if we let our Latino students fall behind, we will all fall behind. I believe that. (Applause.)
So we’ve tied giving more money to reform. And we’re working with states to improve teacher recruitment and retraining and retention. We’re making sure English Language Learners are a priority for educators across the country. We’re holding schools with high dropout rates accountable so they start delivering for our kids. We’re emphasizing math and science, and investing in community colleges so that all of our workers get the skills that today’s companies want. And we’ve won new college grants for more than 100,000 Latino students. And as long as I am President, this country will always invest in its young people. (Applause.)
These are victories for NCLR; they are victories for America. And we did it with your help. We’re keeping our promises. (Applause.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t have unfinished business. I promised you I would work tirelessly to fix our broken immigration system and make the DREAM Act a reality. (Applause.) And two months ago — two months ago, I went down to the border of El Paso to reiterate — (applause.) El Paso is in the house. (Laughter and applause.) To reiterate my vision for an immigration system that holds true to our values and our heritage, and meets our economic and security needs. And I argued this wasn’t just the moral thing to do, it was an economic imperative.
In recent years, one in four high-tech startups in America –- companies like Google and Intel -– were founded on immigrants. One in six new small business owners are immigrants. These are job creators who came here to seek opportunity and now seek to share opportunity.
This country has always been made stronger by our immigrants. That what makes America special. We attract talented, dynamic, optimistic people who are continually refreshing our economy and our spirit. And you can see that in urban areas all across the country where communities that may have been hollowed out when manufacturing left, or were having problems because of an aging population, suddenly you see an influx of immigration, and you see streets that were full of boarded-up buildings, suddenly they’re vibrant with life once again. And it’s immigrant populations who are providing that energy and that drive.
And we have a system right now that allows the best and the brightest to come study in America and then tells them to leave, set up the next great company someplace else. We have a system that tolerates immigrants and businesses that breaks the rules and punishes those that follow the rules. We have a system that separates families, and punishes innocent young people for their parents’ actions by denying them the chance to earn an education or contribute to our economy or serve in our military. These are the laws on the books.
Now, I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause. I share your concerns and I understand them. And I promise you, we are responding to your concerns and working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way.
Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own. (Applause.) And believe me, right now dealing with Congress —
AUDIENCE: Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!
THE PRESIDENT: Believe me — believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. (Laughter.) I promise you. Not just on immigration reform. (Laughter.) But that’s not how — that’s not how our system works.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Change it!
THE PRESIDENT: That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our Constitution is written.
So let’s be honest. I need a dance partner here — and the floor is empty. (Laughter.)
Five years ago, 23 Republican senators supported comprehensive immigration reform because they knew it was the right thing to do for the economy and it was the right thing to do for America. Today, they’ve walked away. Republicans helped write the DREAM Act because they knew it was the right thing to do for the country. Today, they’ve walked away. Last year, we passed the DREAM Act through the House only to see it blocked by Senate Republicans. It was heartbreaking to get so close and see politics get in the way, particularly because some of the folks who walked away had previously been sponsors of this.
Now, all that has to change. And part of the problem is, is that the political winds have changed. That’s left states to come up with patchwork versions of reform that don’t solve the problem. You and I know that’s not the right way to go. We can’t have 50 immigration laws across the country.
So, yes, feel free to keep the heat on me and keep the heat on Democrats. But here’s the only thing you should know. The Democrats and your President are with you. (Applause.) Are with you. Don’t get confused about that. (Applause.) Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws.
Now, usually, as soon as I come out in favor of something, about half of Congress is immediately against it even if it was originally their idea. (Laughter.) You noticed how that works? (Laughter.) So I need you to keep building a movement for change outside of Washington, one that they can’t stop. (Applause.) One that’s greater than this community. (Applause.)
We need a movement that bridges party lines, that unites business and labor and faith communities and law enforcement communities, and all who know that America cannot continue operating with a broken immigration system. And I will be there every step of the way. I will keep up this fight, because Washington is way behind where the rest of the country knows we need to.
And I know that can be frustrating. This is a city where “compromise” is becoming a dirty word; where there’s more political upside in doing what’s easier for reelection, what’s easier for an attack ad, than what’s best for the country. But, NCLR, I want you to know, when you feel frustration or you’re feeling cynical, and when you hear people say we can’t solve our problems or we can’t bring about the change that we’ve fought so hard for, I do want you to remember everything that we’ve already accomplished together just in two and a half years. And I want you to remember why we do this in the first place.
Recently, I heard the story of a participant at this gathering that we had at the White House that I was telling you about at the top of my speech. So this participant’s name was Marie Lopez Rogers. (Applause.) And Marie was born to migrant farm workers in Avondale, Arizona. As a young girl, she and her brother would help their parents in the cotton fields. And I’m assuming the temperatures were sort of like they’ve been the last couple days here in D.C. And it was in those cotton fields that Marie’s father would tell her, “if you don’t want to be working in this heat, you better stay in school.” So that’s what Marie did.
And because of that, because of the tireless, back-breaking work of her parents, because of their willingness to struggle and sacrifice so that one day their children wouldn’t have to –- Marie became the first in her family to go to college. And, interestingly, she now works at the very site where she used to pick cotton — except now city hall sits there and Marie is the town’s mayor. (Applause.)
So that’s the promise of America. That is why we love this country so much. That is why all of us are here. That’s why I am here. Some of us had parents or grandparents who said, maybe I can’t go to college, but someday my child will go to college. Maybe I can’t start my own business, but I promise you someday my child will start his or her own business. I may have to rent today, but someday my child will have a home of her own. My back may be tired, my hands may be cut, I may be working in a field, but someday –- someday -– my daughter will be mayor, or secretary of labor, or a Supreme Court justice. (Applause.)
Hermanos y hermanas, that promise is in our hands. It’s up to us to continue that story. It’s up to us to hand it down to all of our children –- Latino, black, white, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled, not disabled. (Applause.) We’re one family, and we need each other. And if we remember that and continue to focus on that, if we come together and work together as one people and summon the best in each other, I’m confident that promise will endure.
Thank you very much. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)