Thank you; tonight the Justice Department will be honored with an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for our work protecting children from pedophiles and online predators. In the greatest country on earth, little boys and little girls should be safe from the criminals who hunt them. As a father and as Attorney General, I am proud to work with the investigators and prosecutors who, like me, work for that day when our children will be safer and able to pursue their dreams.
For purposes of our time today, I'd like to talk to you about another area of particular and personal importance to me, one that we've been doing a lot of work on, and that’s civil rights.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Department's Civil Rights Division, so I think it's an appropriate time to look back on our past and to talk about what we're doing today.
The guarantee of civil rights has always been at the heart of our national identity. We’ve never perfectly realized that goal, of course, but progress can grow only from imperfection.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaimed the sanctity of individual rights given by God; yet slavery endured for another 90 years. Our ancestors crafted three constitutional amendments to ensure that slavery would never again exist; that all would be considered equal under the law regardless of race; and that voting rights would be denied to no one on account of race. But it took another half century before women got the same guarantee, and it wasn’t until our own lifetimes that Congress, the Executive, and the courts started making these principles matter in all walks of life.
So our national expressions of ideals, while genuine, were not, to put it mildly, fully effective. Jim Crow laws, racist public accommodations, and genuine deprivations of basic human rights are a sad legacy that we must acknowledge. Our advance through history sometimes had us inching, not leaping, toward where we are today.
We are all well aware that civil rights is not a marginal issue. It is—or at least should be—a vital interest of every American, because the guarantee of core civil rights is what made us, and what can sustain us as, a thriving nation, a powerful economy, and an example to the world. In recent years the Department has been making this guarantee better, more real, and available to more people than ever before.
The President has been very clear to me on his commitment to Civil Rights – and the Department has pushed for significant progress on this issue because a child cannot realize America’s promise in the face of bigotry and hate. As a result, our work compares favorably to that of previous administrations.
We have promoted the integrity of law enforcement by significantly increasing the number of settlement agreements reached with police departments to ensure that the requirements of the Constitution are being satisfied. We’ve increased convictions of law enforcement officials for willful misconduct, such as the use of excessive force, by 50 percent.
Last year, our Housing and Civil Enforcement Section filed more cases alleging sexual harassment than in any other year in its history. And last year, in just one year, our Employment Litigation Section filed a total number of lawsuits challenging a pattern or practice of discrimination that would rival a previous stretch of several years of filings combined.
These are but a few of the important indicators of how seriously we take the preservation of civil rights for all Americans, so that we can continue to live up to the ideals of our founding. But we also know that robust protection of civil rights is important for our national security. When we promote tolerance and provide for equal access and opportunity, we can stop radicalization. Homegrown terrorists are a very real threat in Europe and a real possibility here, one that can grow when we have disaffected members of our society who are denied their human rights. Our greatest tool for combating that threat is not to take away civil rights and liberties, but to vigorously protect them.
So whether you have come here today as a business owner, educator, civil servant, community or religious leader…we all have a stake in our country's dedication to civil rights, and I have a very personal commitment as well.
I grew up in a large family descended from Mexican immigrants, who had come to America with nothing more than their names, their work ethic, and their desire to make a better life for themselves and their children. They saw America through the eyes of immigrants, with the hope and reverence that many of us have sadly forgotten.
Growing up I learned how America’s founders had written that "all men are created equal." But still I had the uncomfortable knowledge that some folks didn’t see me as just "Alberto Gonzales." They might see me as Hispanic, or as being inferior because I looked different or was from a certain, poor neighborhood. I knew that some people I encountered in life might miss the other important things about me because of that narrow view. My mother told me stories of not being able to go into a restaurant except through the back door. And I remember visiting the graves of relatives buried in the "Mexican section" of a cemetery.
My experiences were not unlike those of so many other American minorities.
And of course it saddens us all to remember how many American minorities – before and after me – experienced treatment and racism much, much more harsh than I ever did – utterly unthinkable abuse and violence in far too many cases.
It was in the wake of such violence and the Supreme Court's decision in Brown versus Board of Education that our Civil Rights Division was created. Fifty years ago the heart of its work was the expansion and preservation of the rights of African-Americans in voting, education, employment, housing, and access to public accommodations. And we continue to push today to end discrimination wherever we find it. In the past six years we have filed scores of cases on behalf of African-American victims. We've tackled redlining by banks, discrimination at restaurants, and bias in the hiring of police officers, just to name a few examples.
Now, we've made great strides, but we still have a lot to do. We have also expanded our work to counter many other kinds of discrimination, including those based skin color, religion, sex, disability, or national origin. We know that intolerance still exists in this country, including here in Michigan – and I want to assure you that the Justice Department is taking action when we believe a law has been broken.
We've settled lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act for zoning discrimination in the city of Royal Oak, and to improve access to city buses in Detroit. And we convicted a New York man who emailed the Islamic Center of America in Detroit a threat to hunt down and kill Muslims.
In many cases such as these we have had the benefit of a strong partnership with our United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, led by Steve Murphy. I am proud to work alongside these dedicated professionals who have helped lead the charge in the preservation of civil rights.
There was a generation of leaders and dedicated professionals whose work prosecutors like Steve carry on today. Leaders who struggled so that today we could have a more level playing field.
Their work … the work of so many dedicated people … the work of the Civil Rights division of the department I head … led to a day when someone who looks like me—with my background and parents—could be Attorney General.
And now it's my job to build on that foundation, so that my sons' generation can have even greater opportunities.
I want to talk a little more about what we've been doing to fulfill that promise in three specific areas: Human trafficking, religious freedom, and voting rights.
President Bush has said, "Human life is the gift of our creator, and it should never be for sale." And so one of the top priorities of our Civil Rights Division has been the fight against the crime of human trafficking.
Prosecutions on human trafficking cases are up 600 percent in this Administration, and we've won nearly 300 convictions. We have 42 anti-trafficking task forces operating around the country, and in the past three years programs funded by the Department have served more than 1,500 victims.
In March a Livonia man pleaded guilty to charges related to smuggling Eastern European women into the United States and forcing them to work as dancers in strip clubs. Through violence and threats, the man and his partners intimidated the women into silence. Only when two of the victims summoned the courage to escape did their plight become known to law enforcement. One of the tragedies of these crimes is that they can be occurring right next door without our even realizing it.
As we speak, a married couple could be bringing an unsuspecting young girl to America with the promise of schooling and safety – only to keep her locked away as a domestic servant.
As we speak, 20, or 50, or 100 victims could be locked behind the walls of an otherwise nondescript building, working for pennies and hoping for freedom—any kind of relief from their hard, forced labor.
I want you to know that I take this issue very personally. Many of these victims are from foreign countries; most of them are very poor. They just wanted a better life for themselves and for their children. They—just like my ancestors—saw America, as so many people before them have, as a beacon of hope and freedom. And we must do our best to fight this modern-day form of slavery.
Another one of our most cherished values – from the earliest days of our founding – is our respect for religious freedom. The Department of Justice has aggressively enforced the laws against religious discrimination in everything from education, to employment, to fair housing. For example, after years without any investigations involving religious discrimination in education, the Department has opened 40 investigations.
In one case we stood in defense of Nashala Hearn, a Muslim girl in the sixth grade in Muskogee, Oklahoma, whose school told her that she could not wear a headscarf required by her faith. Though other students were permitted to wear head coverings for non-religious purposes, Nashala was suspended twice for wearing her headscarf. That's a difficult position for a young student to be in, facing down her school principal and administration. I don't know how I would have reacted when I was in sixth grade. But Nashala stood up for herself, and she had the Department of Justice to back her up.
I'm especially proud of these cases, because no child should have to choose between the right to practice her religion and the right to an education.
As part of our ongoing efforts to strengthen and preserve religious liberty in this country, in February I unveiled a new initiative by the Department: the First Freedom Project. Our efforts under this program include more public education, to make sure that people know their rights and that we hear about religious liberty concerns. We have been holding informational seminars for religious and community leaders around the country. And we have launched a new website, firstfreedom.gov, with information on the laws we enforce and how to file a complaint. Through litigation and education, we are determined to protect these core rights.
We also have worked actively to protect those who have been endangered because of their religion or ethnicity. I don't have to remind anyone here that everything changed for us on September 11th, 2001. For the Department of Justice it meant that our top priority became the protection of our Nation against another terrorist attack. But it also reminded us of the importance of protecting civil rights, as we saw an increase in bias attacks on American Muslims and Sikhs and on Americans of Middle-Eastern and South-Asian descent.
In one case a man named Antonio Nunez-Flores built two incendiary devices, Molotov cocktails, and attacked the Islamic Center of El Paso, Texas. Children playing in the area ran away as a gasoline-filled bottle shattered on the ground, scorching the earth. He lit a second device and placed it near the center's natural gas meter, but it was discovered and extinguished before it could explode.
And we saw subtler forms of bigotry, imposed not through fire, but through law, as communities used zoning rules to restrict religious freedom. When the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, Illinois, wanted to expand its facilities a few years back to provide more classrooms and to build a mosque, they encountered exactly this type of backlash. The Department mediated a resolution under which the village agreed to allow the construction.
We aggressively pursue hate crimes and discrimination cases like these because they strike not just at individuals but at whole communities. If ignored, violence and discrimination have the potential to corrode the promise of opportunity that has made our Nation great.
Finally, I want to talk about a very important part of the Department's heritage. Our work on voting rights over the years has been one of our most enduring and most impressive legacies; and I wish I could tell you that issue was now just a part of our history. But while the threat has diminished in this area, we must still be vigilant against any attempt to restrict ballot access. The right to vote is one of our most basic principles, and protecting it is still very much one of the top priorities of our Civil Rights Division.
Our voting section filed 18 new lawsuits last year, more than doubling the average number of suits filed annually in the preceding 30 years. And last November we successfully mounted the largest monitoring effort ever conducted for a mid-term election. We sent out more than 800 people to 69 jurisdictions around the country, including nearby in Hamtramck, to look out for potential problems and to ensure equal access to the polls under the law. A few years back we got one county in my home state of Texas to enforce the law by instituting a program that made voting materials available in Vietnamese. On the day of the first election after that change, elderly people who had never voted before because of a simple language barrier could walk proudly into the polls and cast their vote. And that day they elected the first Vietnamese-American ever to the Texas state legislature.
In fact, during the last six years we have filed more lawsuits to enforce the foreign language voting rights laws than had been brought in all the preceding years since enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 combined. And we've filed more than 75 percent of all the voter assistance cases in history.
We filed the first cases ever to protect the voting rights of Haitian, Filipino and Korean-Americans. And last July we filed a complaint against the city of Euclid, Ohio, alleging that its "at large" system for electing the city council diluted the strength of African-American voters.
When I was growing up, despite the poverty around me I held on to the knowledge that being an American meant having equal opportunity. I knew it was true because I watched the adults in my neighborhood go to the polls on Election Day. On that day, they had the same say, the same voice as anyone else in how our state and our country would be run. They had the same vote, the same amount of power to choose the leaders of our government.
So I think you can understand that Election Day is very special for me. And I take very seriously any claim that eligible voters somewhere are not being granted their full rights under the law. Our civil liberties lie at the very heart of what it means to live in freedom. I am committed to preserving them in everything we do at the Department of Justice.
I know that there are still some in our society who are unwilling to accept the civil rights of their fellow citizens. I also know that America is better than those few small-minded people.
Our social evolution has been painful at times -- it has not been as fast as it should have been, and it is not yet complete. But my generation has experienced more equality than our parents did, and because of what I have seen in my lifetime, I continue to be impressed by the progress of equality from one American generation to the next.
I believe I was fortunate to have grown up in a time when things were getting better in this country. I was eight years old when Dr. King spoke of his dream, and by the time I was in high school, that dream was beginning to be realized.
My friends in high school were more open-minded than some of their parents were. And my sons are growing up in a time even better yet, where their race and that of their classmates is so inconsequential that it rarely comes up as a topic. The eyes of my children’s generation seem largely colorblind to me.
For this and many other reasons, I believe that this country is living up to its ideals today more than ever before. We are doing our best to heal the wounds of the past, and our commitment to human dignity is unrivaled. It has made us better people; it has made our economy stronger; it has given us moral authority around the world.
In 1964, one Southern sheriff and his supporters wore buttons with a one-word slogan that summed up how they felt about equal rights for African-Americans: "Never." It is my goal, the goal of all of us at DOJ, to take that slogan and turn it back on those who preach hate and intolerance. We will never stop fighting for the civil rights of all Americans.
Thank you. May God bless you all, and may he continue to bless the United States of America.