It’s a pleasure to be with you. I’d like to congratulate all the winners of the Jose Marti Awards.
It is quite an honor for these awardees to be associated with someone like Jose Marti. He fought – and ultimately sacrificed his life – for deeply held beliefs in the fundamental power of liberty, freedom, and the greatness of the human spirit. His example is a good one for all writers, reporters, producers, publishers and other members of the media who play a vital role as protectors of those same values in our great Nation.
I, too, find myself engaged in the safeguarding of these beliefs. As the first Hispanic Attorney General – and a product of the American dream – I am constantly reminded of my role as a steward of the hopes and opportunities that we all expect from America.
I believe that the American dream is about living and prospering in a secure, lawful, hopeful, and safe society. And it is a dream that for many years has been protected in large part by the actions and activities of the Justice Department. So I am keenly aware of the questions that are asked of me: Are we doing all we can to prevent another terrorist attack? Are our neighborhoods safer? Are fewer people participating in the destructive life of drugs and gangs? Are we succeeding in stamping out illegal discrimination? Is our society open and welcoming to the immigrant dream?
At the Justice Department, we ask these questions as a way of measuring our efforts. We work each day to protect the American dream for every citizen and future generations.
And while history will ultimately judge our success, I think we are making progress on a number of important issues, including fighting terrorism; combating violent crime, drug trafficking, and cyber crimes; protecting civil rights; and ensuring that our public and private institutions operate with integrity. I’ve focused the Department on these strategic objectives, but I’d like to talk with you today about three areas of primary concern to Hispanics across the country: violent gangs, civil rights, and immigration.
Every American deserves to live free from the fear of violent crime. We remain focused on reducing gun crime and liberating communities from the stranglehold of gang violence.
In too many communities – especially among Hispanics – young boys choose to join a gang rather than a little league team or a Cub Scout troop. But that is a foolish choice… there is no future in joining a gang. Gangs shatter the dreams of those who succumb to their false promises and wreak havoc on nearly everyone in their path.
I recently announced a major new initiative to fight gangs across the country. And this morning, I was in Los Angeles with Mayor Villaraigosa to announce that his city was one of six areas that will participate in a pilot project to target anti-gang resources in new and imaginative ways. In addition to L.A., this program will help combat gang activity in Cleveland; Dallas-Fort Worth; Milwaukee; Tampa; and the “222 [two-twenty-two] Corridor” that stretches from Easton to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.
This new program will focus on three areas: prevention, targeted enforcement, and prisoner re-entry.
We’ll start with prevention – working to address the personal, family, and community factors that cause young people who become juvenile delinquents and choose gangs over better, safer, and more productive alternatives. Locking up a gang member may make a local community safer but in many cases it means that we have lost the battle for that person’s future. We need to save our kids earlier. The more success we can have in this area, the fewer people we’ll have to prosecute for violent activity down the road.
Unfortunately, there will always be a need for enforcement. So the second part of the program will provide grants to help State and local law enforcement target the most significant violent gang offenders – and lock them up so that they can no longer threaten their communities. Federal involvement is often more effective… we can impose tougher sentences than are available under state laws. Additionally, incarceration has greater deterrence when you move gang members outside the comfort zone of local detention facilities and across the state to a federal facility.
Lastly, we want to ensure that offenders returning to society don’t go back to their violent ways. This new initiative will support mentor-based re-entry assistance that includes everything from transitional housing and job placement to substance abuse and mental health treatment. When offenders get a second chance to give up illegal use of guns and gang violence, we have a responsibility to arm them with the skills and support they need to pursue the American dream.
Forty years ago, the color of your skin was as much of an obstacle to the American dream as violent gangs. My mother has reminded me that during her lifetime, she and her family were forced to go into the back entrance of a restaurant rather than the front door because of their race and recently she went into the front door of the White House to meet the President of the United States. Clearly we have made progress. But there is much more work left to do in promoting the civil rights of all Americans, in particular the right to vote.
Two weeks ago, I was in Chicago to announce the release of a report detailing the Justice Department’s efforts to halt the pernicious evil of human trafficking – one of the foremost civil rights issues of our day.
The report tells the painfully human story of young men and women – many of them Hispanic – who are smuggled into the United States and sold as household servants or field workers, locked up in sweatshops and factories, or forced to work as prostitutes and sex slaves.
The stories are well known to those of you who report on this vile and degrading crime. I was particularly disturbed to hear of one story from my home state of Texas. A group of Mexican women were brought across the border by alien smugglers and stashed in “safehouses.” While the smugglers attempted to extort more money from the victims’ families, the young women were forced to cook and clean during the day…and were brutally raped and beaten at night.
When two of the women tried to escape, the ringleader ordered them killed. They were stripped, gang-raped, and left for dead in a canal ditch on the side of a Texas roadway. Miraculously, a nearby family found them, got them help, and the women were able to assist law enforcement and prosecutors in rescuing other victims and putting the perpetrators behind bars.
Because of my ancestors, who came to America in search of opportunity, I am particularly appalled by traffickers who lure their victims here with promises of a better life. There is no place in our compassionate society for these peddlers of broken dreams. President Bush has pledged his support for this effort, and I’ve made it one of my highest priorities at the Justice Department.
As so many of you know, the American dream is in many ways an immigrant dream – not unlike that lived by people in this room and our ancestors who came to America to find freedom and opportunity.
I was with the President earlier this week as he welcomed a group of newly naturalized citizens. He told them about the opportunities and responsibilities that come along with that citizenship. And he reiterated his vision for a comprehensive immigration reform policy that is based upon law and reflects our deep desire to be a compassionate and decent Nation.
As Attorney General, I am responsible for enforcing the law. A reasonable immigration strategy has to include enforcement – especially enforcement designed to keep terrorists and criminals from entering our country – as well as providing legal opportunities for immigrants to pursue their dreams in jobs that cannot be filled by American workers.
The President has outlined three critical elements for his immigration policy: improve security along our borders, strengthen immigration enforcement inside our country, and importantly provide legal options for people who want to stay in the United States to work temporarily. I’ve heard him say a number of times: “Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River.”
But in a post 911 world we must know who is coming into our country and why. We have worked hard to secure our airports and ports, we have put in place the infrastructure to share more effectively information about threats, but the security of our citizens also depends on our ability to control the border. And we will.
Much of the immigration debate is centered on the President’s call for a Temporary Worker Program as a way to match willing workers with willing employers…especially for jobs Americans are unwilling to do. This should not be confused with amnesty, which the President has adamantly rejected as unfair and unwise.
As Attorney General, I appreciate that with a temporary worker program, fewer people will try to enter our country illegally to work…and that means our enforcement efforts can focus on terrorists and other criminals who seek to enter our country not to work, but harm our Nation through terrorist or criminal activities.
America is the greatest country in the world. In Los Angeles, I talked about how only this country, can a Hispanic be the mayor of one of the largest cities or chief law enforcement officer in the land. As a Hispanic American, it is important to me that the President believes that America must recognize and value our diversity…and our heritage as a nation of immigrants.
The President understands that this is an important national discussion. He wants the Congress to take action on an immigration plan that makes sense for everyone – that keeps us safe and keeps our economy growing. But he wants that debate to be dignified…to honor our traditions…and to respect the differences that have long been a part of the American dream.
Jose Marti – who was consumed with the dreams of his homeland – once wrote:
Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but it’s impossible to stop them. I appreciate everything you do to ensure that fair ideas reach their objectives. Whether it is fighting gangs, preserving civil rights, or developing a comprehensive immigration program…I am confident that we will achieve our aims just as surely as stones rolling downhill.
We won’t do it alone at the Justice Department or in the Bush Administration. We’ll need partners across the political spectrum and across the country – concerned citizens who want the same hopes and opportunities of the American dream to be available to their children and grandchildren. But we are going to get there and we’ll get there together.
Thank you. May God bless you and your families, may He guide your reporting and writing, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.