Today is my last day at work as Attorney General—and this is essentially my last public speech in that office. I couldn’t have found a more appropriate place to be this afternoon.
Let me tell you why. First, being part of your Hispanic Heritage Month celebration is a chance for me to reflect on our shared legacy. It provides an opportunity for us to recall just how much Hispanic Americans have contributed to this country—and how public service has been an important part of that.
Second, as you may know I began my own career in public service 34 years ago, right out of high school, as a new Air Force recruit. And so I'm proud to bring my time in public life back to where it began—ending it with you, my fellow airmen.
Thirty-four years sounds like a long time—but it doesn’t feel that way. And as I look back on it, I know that joining the Air Force was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I couldn’t have appreciated it at the time, of course, and I certainly didn't foresee my life unfolding the way it has. But everything that happened for me after, flowed from that decision.
The Air Force is what allowed me to go to college. It opened doors that a poor kid from Texas could barely have imagined otherwise. And it taught me many things that almost no kids from Texas, rich or poor, could imagine, including exactly how cold it could be at Fort Yukon, Alaska, my first posting.
Serving in the Air Force gave me a great sense of purpose, of pride, and of accomplishment. It challenged me. It taught me what I was capable of, and gave me confidence that hard work really paid off. These are lessons that have stayed with me every day since.
All of that said, I had the privilege of being the first Hispanic Attorney General of the United States largely because of the hard work of so many others. Our ancestors came from Mexico and other countries to find a better life in America, and in turn they enriched this country. Their pride, honor, dignity and perseverance helped create a Nation in which one of their sons could rise to the office I've been honored to hold.
It wasn’t that long ago in our country when having a Hispanic at the highest levels of government was unthinkable, no matter how hard he worked. It’s different now, largely because our ancestors built a solid foundation for us, in line with the values that made them want to come to America in the first place. They worked to raise strong families with faith and love for their new country. While I may be the first Hispanic Attorney General, know that I won't be the last.
The amazing strides our country has made are also due in large part to the efforts of the Department of Justice. It has won enormous victories over the past half century to vindicate the rights of all Americans to equal justice under the law.
The Civil Rights Division—which continues to champion liberty for all without respect to race, religion, gender, or disability—was created 50 years ago this month. It was the work of those dedicated men and women that has helped make a country where my mother—who once had to enter through the back door of restaurants in Texas—could walk with me through the front door of the White House to meet the President of the United States.
A great country, with true equality, does not allow race and ethnicity to limit how far one rises or how much he is able to do on behalf of his country. Our ethnicity is a source of pride and heritage—but whatever our background, and wherever our ancestors came here from, we can achieve great things when we answer the call of public service.
Our Nation was founded by patriots who were willing to stand up and serve; to fight if need be. It is a strong part of our culture and our understanding of community. On behalf of the President and the American people, I want to thank you for standing up and answering that call to serve.
You are following in the footsteps of noble men and women like Macario Garcia, who was born in Mexico, moved to the United States with his family looking for a better life, and joined the Army during World War II, though he had not yet even become a U.S. citizen. While fighting in Germany, he was painfully wounded by enemy fire. But he refused to be evacuated, crawling forward alone to destroy two machine gun nests and capture four German soldiers. For his great courage in battle, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
You are following in the footsteps of Rocky Versace, whose mother grew up in Puerto Rico, and who himself was raised here in Washington before going off to fight heroically in Vietnam. When he was taken prisoner by the enemy, he spent much of the next two years in a bamboo cage six feet long by two feet wide by three feet high, and inspired other POWs by resisting the Viet Cong's torture and attempts at indoctrination. Before he was executed by his captors, the last time his fellow prisoners heard his voice, he was singing "God Bless America" at the top of his lungs.
And you are walking alongside our service members in Iraq and Afghanistan today. One of them is my nephew, Anthony, who I was able to visit with a few weeks ago when I traveled to Baghdad for the third time as Attorney General. The sacrifice of these men and women, and the hardships and danger they endure to help bring justice, freedom, and the rule of law to people a half a world away, is every bit as stirring as that of the generations of heroes who have gone before them.
The service of every one of you -- whether you are a civilian or wear the uniform for your country -- is a great and noble thing. And the long Hispanic tradition that you are a part of makes it richer still.
Over the next few weeks, America recognizes what we in this room know from personal experience. The most admired values of the Hispanic community are the same values that sustain our Nation's greatness: Sacrifice … hard work … personal initiative ... dedication to family … and perseverance in the face of adversity.
I saw these values every day in the life of my father, Pablo.
My father was not an educated man. But he worked every day to help his eight children find the American dream.
As a young man, he picked crops in the fields of South Texas, where he met another migrant worker -- a young woman named Maria, who would become my mother.
He and two of my uncles built the house in Houston that I grew up in -- my mother lives there still today.
I can remember when I was a small boy playing in the field as they laid the cinder blocks for the house's foundation. They nailed together the two-by-fours, hung the drywall, and hammered the composition shingles onto the roof. From their sweat, toil and vision arose the small two-bedroom house that became our home.
That home is my past, but it also represents our heritage, as Americans who always dream and work for a better tomorrow.
As a young boy I would ask my mother to wake me before dawn so I could eat scrambled eggs and tortillas with my father before he left for work. As dad and I ate breakfast together, my mother would prepare a modest lunch of beans and tortillas and carefully place them in a brown paper sack. I can picture my dad walking down the street to catch a ride to the construction site; and me running outside and waving goodbye.
The memories of this daily ritual burn strong in my chest as I recall this simple time, that simple food, and those deep, enduring American values of family, hard work, and sacrifice.
Those are the principles that my parents instilled in me.
And those principles are the best heritage of our community. They are the values our Nation reaffirms during Hispanic Heritage Month.
I'm telling you these stories not because there's something so remarkable about my life, but because of how frankly unremarkable it has been in many ways. And that’s what is so wonderful about this great country.
The story of America is a story of constant renewal and reaffirmation of our founding ideals and our enduring values of faith, family, and freedom. I have drawn on the strength of my heritage and the insights of my background to try to make America a better place for everyone. And I know all of you do the same.
When we see a child who has been hurt or exploited, we’re not interested in his race, or how nice a home he lives in. We see a hurt child…and everything inside of us wants to do whatever we can to take away his pain and bring him justice.
That's why I made the protection of children from pedophiles and sexual predators one of my top priorities as Attorney General. We talk about these issues, but let me just tell you one story about why it matters to me so deeply.
Recently the Justice Department brought charges against a Pennsylvania man and two women on 53 counts of producing child pornography. According to the indictment, over six years the man sexually abused at least eight children, some of them infants as young as three months old. He videotaped the assaults, and downloaded the images onto his computer.
When we hear stories like that, I think there is a strong impulse in all of us here – powerful in our Hispanic culture, powerful among those who choose to serve – to think of our own families; to want to protect those children; to build a wall around them; and watch over them.
Perhaps it's that same impulse that also drew me to another priority at the Department of Justice: the emphasis we've placed on ridding our neighborhoods of gun crimes and gang violence.
Violent crime is a blight on too many of our communities, and it disproportionately affects the poorest and weakest in our society. In too many neighborhoods in this country, we have a gang problem. Too many of those gang members are young Hispanic men. And it breaks my heart to see so many who have come across our border not seeking to work hard for the American dream like my grandparents did, but looking for the easy money of crime, and the brutality of gangs.
I contrast the sadness I feel about those cases with the pleasure I have taken in welcoming people to this country as they're sworn in as new citizens.
Last year around July 4th, I participated in such a naturalization ceremony in New York City—aboard the USS Intrepid. On that visit, not far from the site of the World Trade Center, I was reminded of the threat that terrorists pose to our Nation—and of the importance of my number one priority as Attorney General: To ensure that the Department of Justice does all it can to prevent another terrorist attack on our homeland.
Over the past two and a half years, I have seen tyranny, dishonesty, corruption and depravity of types I never thought possible. I've seen things I didn’t know man was capable of.
But I will tell you here and now that these things still leave me hopeful. Because every time I see a glimmer of the evil man can do, I see the defenders of liberty, truth, and justice who stand ready to fight it.
I see the power of our Constitution, strong enough to withstand petty squabbles and politics.
I see the courage of our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen – and I am hopeful, and so very proud. My time in public service has had its share of difficulties, but even more moments of inspiration. My trips to Iraq have been among them. Being part of a Department that plays a vital role in stopping terrorists has been a humbling experience.
And working to protect kids has given me so many memories that I will always treasure. Not long ago, during National Missing Children’s Day, I had the chance to spend time with children who had been abducted, but were later rescued, and with siblings of children who were abducted but not recovered. The courage of these young men and women brought tears to my eyes. They are sharing their experiences—and their pain—to help prevent future violence against children, and to comfort other kids who must now walk the path that they have walked, so that those kids know that they are not alone.
I have often said that my worst day in office was better than my father's best day. My work has not been easy, but it has been unbelievably rewarding. Because I knew that every day when I got up, I was being given a new opportunity to work for the American people.
I've been honored to serve the President, my home state of Texas, and this great country for the past 13 years.
When I first went into public service, I told my wife, Rebecca, it would only be for a couple of years. It's been longer than that, but I have truly enjoyed myself. And now as I depart the stage, I am proud to know that each of you will carry on the mantle of service.
My hopes, and those of many others with stories similar to mine, are reflected in those words of the founders of this Nation more than two centuries ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Those words are a simple, clear expression the American dream. I believe in that dream with all my heart. I have lived it in a way I never would have thought possible – a way that 18-year old airman standing duty in Alaska would not have dared imagine.
I am the son of a Mexican cotton picker and a construction worker who never finished grade school, and I am the Attorney General of the United States. If anyone ever tries to tell you the American dream doesn't exist, or that you can't achieve it, I hope you'll set them straight.
And so I want to thank you again for inviting me to be here with you today. I thank you for your service. I pray that God may bless all of you and keep you safe; and that He continue to so richly bless the United States of America.