Thank you, Michael. Good afternoon, everyone. It is wonderful to be back here among good and old friends, particularly during a time of important and historic debate within this country.
According to the latest census data, there has been spectacular growth in Hispanic-owned businesses – three times the national average. You are showing the promise of the American dream. Our fellow Americans could learn a lot about hard work, faith, and devotion to family and community from the examples sitting here.
I too was a business owner once . . . a sole proprietor. Almost 40 years ago, as a 12-year-old boy, I climbed what seemed like every step in Houston’s 70,000 seat Rice Stadium, carrying trays of Coca-Colas and Sprites at Rice University football games. On a good night, I would return home with over twenty dollars in quarters. In addition to watching the mighty Owls square off against Longhorns and Mustangs and Razorbacks, I watched the students . . . and I dreamed of what it would be like to attend college there someday.
As many of us know through experience, dreams do come true. I graduated from Rice many years later. And it has been the greatest honor of my professional life to have served President George W. Bush for more than 12 years now. I am grateful that, in many respects, I have experienced the American dream.
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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 President Bush last week as he welcomed a group of immigrants who were about to become naturalized citizens. He told them about the opportunities and responsibilities that come along with citizenship. And he reiterated his vision of an optimistic Nation that welcomes immigrants who arrive on our shores or at our borders in search of a better life for themselves and their families. He said, quote,
“At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation. It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave their families and risk everything to come to America. Their talent and hard work and love of freedom have helped make America the leader of the world. And our generation will ensure that America remains a beacon of liberty and the most hopeful society the world has ever known.”
President Bush has shown great compassion, courage, and leadership on the difficult issue of immigration. He has called on Congress to increase the number of green cards that can lead to citizenship. And he supports increasing the number of visas available for foreign-born workers in highly-skilled fields like science, medicine, and technology. After September the 11th, he signed an executive order making foreign-born members of our military immediately eligible for citizenship – because those heroes who are willing to risk their lives for our democracy should be full participants in our democracy.
One such hero was Rafael Peralta. An immigrant from Mexico, he enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Just before the battle of Fallujah, he wrote his 14-year-old brother, quote, “We are going to defeat the insurgents. Be proud of me, I’m going to make history and do something that I always wanted to do.” A few days later, Sergeant Peralta gave his life to save his fellow Marines. Although most immigrants are not called upon to sacrifice their lives for our country, many make sacrifices that improve and protect the lives of all Americans.
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Now, the President is leading the effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform. He wants immigration reform that is based upon law and reflects our deep desire to be a compassionate and decent Nation. He 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.”
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 – and also provide legal opportunities for immigrants to pursue their dreams in jobs that cannot be filled by American workers. Likewise, a reasonable immigration strategy will not succeed without enforcement designed to discourage employers from hiring workers here out of status. America should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society.
In a post 9/11 world, we must know who is coming into our country and the reasons why. We have worked hard to secure our airports and seaports, and we have put in place the infrastructure to share information about threats more effectively within the federal government, and between federal, state, and local officials, but the security of our citizens also depends on our ability to control the border. No one is served by an immigration system that allows large numbers of people to sneak across the border illegally. Nobody benefits when illegal immigrants live in the shadows of society. Everyone suffers when people seeking to provide for their families are left at the mercy of criminals, or stuffed in the back of 18-wheelers, or abandoned in the desert to die.
Just last week, it was reported that a human smuggler crashed and then abandoned a horse trailer packed with dozens of illegal aliens in Tucson, Arizona. Border Patrol agents counted 42 people, mostly from Mexico, at the scene. Witnesses say there may have been as many as 60 humans packed into a space meant for two horses. “It is inhumane,” said one witness. “They were all crammed in there, basically bodies lying on bodies.” Eighteen of the border crossers suffered injuries; 12 were hospitalized. Our U.S. Attorneys in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California report to me that incidents like this happen everyday along our Southwest border. Clearly, comprehensive immigration reform is desperately needed now.
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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 for jobs Americans are unwilling to do. Workers should be afforded the opportunity to qualify for legal status on a temporary basis. If they decide to apply for a green card or for citizenship, they would have to get in line behind those who respected our immigration laws. I believe the opportunity to live and work in this country and provide for their families under some kind of legal status is all that most immigrants desire. My mother, Maria Gonzales, spent several years working in the fields picking everything from cotton to green beans to strawberries. Although a U.S. citizen herself, she does not remember ever making a distinction between citizens and those without legal status: they all worked side-by-side to provide for their families and give their kids a better life.
Providing immigrants the opportunity to obtain legal status should not be confused with amnesty, which the President has firmly rejected as unfair and unwise. Listen carefully to what I am saying. You have succeeded in business by playing by the rules. Workers who come out of the shadows and enroll in the Temporary Worker Program should incur some sort of penalty for violating the law, such as a monetary fine and a requirement that they pay back taxes. Upholding the rule of law is too important for it to be otherwise.
As Attorney General, I appreciate that with a temporary worker program, we will understand better who is coming into our country and why . . . and that means our enforcement efforts can focus on terrorists and other criminals who do not seek to enter our country only to work to improve their lives, but instead seek to enter our country so they can inflict harm through terrorist or criminal activities.
The President understands that this immigration discussion is very important. He wants the Congress to take action on an immigration plan this year that makes sense for everyone – that keeps us safe and keeps our economy growing. But he wants the debate to be civil and dignified . . . to honor our traditions . . . and to respect the differences that have long been a part of the American dream.
I am personally concerned about some of the rhetoric associated with this debate. No one should try to play on people’s fears by recycling myths, or try to pit neighbor against neighbor. No one should pretend that immigrants are a threat to American identity, because immigrants have shaped America’s identity. No one should claim that immigrants are a burden on our economy, because the work and enterprise of immigrants helps sustain our economy. We must not give in to pessimism… instead, we must embrace the generous optimism of the American spirit.
America is the greatest country in the world. Last week in Los Angeles, I talked about how, no matter the circumstances of one’s birth, only in America can a Latino, Antonio Villaraigosa, be the mayor of one of the largest and most glamorous cities in the world, and how only in America can a young Coca-Cola salesman grow up to become the Attorney General of the United States, the chief law enforcement officer in the land. As an Hispanic American, it is important to me that the President believes that America must recognize and value its diversity . . . and our heritage as a nation of immigrants.
I want to thank the Chamber for its leadership and for the dignified manner in which you have engaged in this debate. Let us move forward to do the right thing, to find the right solution in the best traditions of our Nation.
May God bless you and your families, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.