Thank you, Margaret. It is a privilege to stand with you today, and I want you to know how much I appreciate those kind words – especially today. Above all, I want to thank you for the outstanding leadership that you are providing – not only for the League of United Latin American Citizens, but also in our nation’s ongoing struggle to ensure equality, opportunity, and justice for all.
Throughout your tenure as President, because of the priorities you’ve set and the partnerships you’ve forged – and thanks to the dedicated work of Executive Director Brent Wilkes; your Executive Committee and council leaders; and your ever-expanding network of members and supporters – LULAC has continued to stand on the front lines of both local and national efforts to protect civil rights; encourage civic engagement; expand opportunities for learning and employment; and ensure fairness in our financial markets, law enforcement activities, and immigration policies.
On these and other critical issues, you’ve succeeded in bringing a diverse range of partners together. You’ve proven the power of unity – and the virtues of diversity. And you’ve breathed new life into the old adage that – more than 80 years ago – gave voice to LULAC’s mission and vision: Uno para todos, todos para uno.
This enduring ideal – of all for one, and one for all; and the common understanding – that, here in the United States, we rise and fall as one people, and that we will only succeed if we work together as one nation – has been at the heart of the success we’re gathered to celebrate today – and to advance.
Without question, it’s been another extraordinary year for LULAC. Every person in this room – and your allies across the country – have strengthened this organization’s long tradition of advocacy and action. You’ve ensured that LULAC continues to serve as a training ground for future leaders – and as a meeting ground, where – for more than eight decades – American Presidents, policymakers, and concerned citizens – from across the political spectrum – have come to speak with you, and to learn from you.
I am hardly the first to recognize LULAC’s importance and influence in helping to meet our nation’s founding, and most unifying, goals. But I think that these shared aspirations may have been summed up most effectively, and eloquently, by President John F. Kennedy – nearly half a century ago. Speaking at a dinner in Houston, Texas – that was hosted by the local LULAC chapter – he discussed the need for, “a common commitment to freedom, [and] to equality of opportunity…[in order] to show to the world a very bright star here in this country.”
Those words were spoken on November 21, 1963 – what would be the last night of President Kennedy’s young life. They are among the final gifts – of instruction and inspiration – that he left to us. Although he would not have the chance to help guide the way forward, his vision – that the flickers of hope he saw all across this country could, indeed, make America a shining example for all the world – has, in many ways, been realized.
In recent decades, our nation has made remarkable, once unimaginable, progress. Barack Obama and I are living proof of this fact. And, while we all can be proud of how far we’ve come – the harsh, and inescapable, reality is that we still have more to do – and further to go.
This annual conference presents an important chance – to renew our shared commitment to the cause of equality; and to honor the contributions of countless courageous men and women – from every walk of life, and every corner of the globe – who set their sights on our shores – driven by little more than their hope for a better life, and their dream of a brighter future for their children – and then set out to make that dream a reality.
Our country has always drawn great strength from this history – and from its rich diversity. Like many of you, I grew up in a family – and among a community – of immigrants. And that same spirit – of faith in America’s promise and potential – that brought my own family to America, so many years ago, has brought each of us here to Orlando today.
As a nation, we’ve reached a moment of consequence. You understand the range of challenges we’re up against. You know what’s at stake. And many of you have been directly affected by the divisions, disparities, and instances of discrimination we’ve gathered to discuss and address. You have the same concerns that so many Americans have shared with me – in my travels across the country – that the hard-won progress of the Civil Rights era has come under renewed threat; and that our nation may be at risk of falling short of its highest ideals.
But just as this is an hour of great need, it is also a moment of significant opportunity. And organizations like LULAC are leading the way forward. You’re helping call attention to, and raise awareness about, the problems we face, and the obstacles that lie ahead. And, in concert with a wide range of committed partners, you’re working to address these issues – and to help develop and implement innovative strategies for fighting back, and strengthening the progress we’ve made in protecting sacred freedoms and opportunities.
For me – and for my colleagues across the Department of Justice – this work is a top priority. And I’m proud to report that our civil rights enforcement efforts have never been stronger. Over the last three years – under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez – our Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than ever before, including record numbers of police misconduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. We’ve worked to reduce violence, eliminate bias, combat intimidation – and to ensure nothing but the highest standards of integrity and professionalism across our nation’s law enforcement community.
Just last month, these efforts drove the Department to take an unusual – and extremely rare – action. Following a long, and thorough, investigation into the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona – and after repeated attempts to work with the Sheriff there and his colleagues to remedy the concerns that that investigation raised – in early May, the Department had no choice but to file suit against Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio, the Sheriff’s Office, and the County for discriminatory police and incarceration practices that violate the constitutional rights of Latinos in Maricopa County – and that have no place in responsible and effective law enforcement.
Our efforts to ensure fair and equal treatment also have extended into America’s housing and lending markets. At the center of this work is a series of new initiatives and enforcement actions to eliminate predatory and discriminatory lending practices, while establishing important protections for communities of color, military servicemembers, veterans, and others who have been victimized. Last year, the Civil Rights Division – through its new Fair Lending Unit – settled or filed a record number of cases to hold financial institutions accountable for discriminatory practices directed at African Americans and Latinos. Among these was a $335 million settlement with Countrywide Financial Corporation – the largest residential fair lending settlement in history – which involved more than 200,000 victims of discrimination, roughly two thirds of whom were Latinos.
This historic action proves the Department’s commitment not only to bring criminals to justice – and to secure severe penalties against those who violate our civil rights laws – but also to protect and empower victims. Nowhere is this commitment more evident than in our broad-based, innovative efforts to combat the despicable practice of human trafficking – and to defend and liberate trafficking victims.
As a result of our reinvigorated partnerships with state, local, and international authorities – particularly Mexican authorities – and thanks to a number of anti-trafficking training programs that the Department has helped to create, and to expand – we’ve seen record numbers of human trafficking cases over the last three years, including a rise of more than 30 percent in the number of forced labor and adult sex trafficking prosecutions. These actions have sent an unmistakable message to traffickers around the globe: we will find you; we will stop you; and we will hold you accountable – to the fullest extent of the law.
The same can be said of our efforts to combat hate crimes, and to bring perpetrators of these vicious crimes to justice. Over the past three years, the Justice Department prosecuted 35 percent more hate crime cases than during the preceding three-year period. And we’re vigorously enforcing the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – which President Obama signed into law in 2009 – a moment that LULAC, and so many other civil rights champions, worked for years to achieve.
As some of you know, one of the first cases the Department brought under this law involved five Latino victims who were pursued along a highway – and brutally attacked – simply because of their ethnicity. In this and other instances, the Shepard-Byrd Act helped us to achieve convictions – and stiff penalties – befitting the horrific nature of these crimes. And we will not hesitate to use it – and every available tool – to protect your rights. Many of you saw proof of this last year, when the Justice Department secured a conviction – and 50 month prison sentence – against an individual who sent a series of racist, threatening emails to LULAC and four other national civil rights organizations.
In this work, and in all of our enforcement efforts, the men and women of the Civil Rights Division – and in our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide – are driven by three guiding principles: first, the need to expand opportunity and access for every person; second, to safeguard the most vulnerable among us from violence, exploitation, and discrimination; and third, to ensure the effective infrastructure of our democracy.
These ideals are at the heart of our robust efforts to protect the single most fundamental, and most powerful, right of American citizenship: the right to vote .
As you know, over the last 18 months, we’ve seen a rise in voting-related measures at the state level – including here in Florida – many of which could make it extremely difficult for many eligible voters to cast ballots this year. Here in this state – as in a number of jurisdictions across the country – the Justice Department has initiated careful, thorough, and independent reviews of certain proposed changes – examining redistricting plans, as well as early voting procedures, photo identification requirements, and changes affecting third party registration organizations – in order to guard against disenfranchisement and to ensure compliance with critical laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
LULAC has been a powerful voice in supporting this work. In Texas, this organization – and many of the Tejanos gathered here today – have been at the forefront of critical efforts to ensure fair redistricting. And, here in Florida, we saw the value of LULAC’s dedicated work several weeks ago, in an important ruling in a case that civic organizations brought against this state. LULAC spoke out strongly in support of this legal action, which successfully challenged Florida’s new voter registration statute – and protected the rights of perhaps millions of eligible voters.
Your work in this case – and many other critical issues – honors our most basic principles: of inclusion and opportunity, of equal treatment and fair representation – the very ideals that are at the core of the Justice Department’s most important efforts, including our voting rights enforcement activities. Over the last three years, we have worked successfully and comprehensively to protect the voting rights of citizens with disabilities, language minorities, and Americans living and serving abroad. During the 2010 election cycle, the Civil Rights Division obtained court orders, court-approved consent decrees, or out-of-court agreements in 14 jurisdictions, which ensured that thousands of military and overseas voters had the opportunity to vote and to have their votes counted. In fact, in just the past four months, we've filed four different lawsuits – in Alabama, Wisconsin, California – and, just yesterday, in Georgia – to protect the voting rights of servicemembers and overseas citizens.
We’ve also worked to ensure that the protections for language minorities included in the Voting Rights Act – which LULAC helped to ensure – are aggressively enforced. These protections now apply to more than 19 million voting-age citizens. In the last year and a half, we’ve resolved eight different cases to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking, Chinese-speaking, and Native American voters in communities all around the country. And, today, we’re actively reviewing nationwide compliance.
But the Justice Department can’t do it all. We’ll continue to rely on organizations like LULAC to help ensure that essential civil liberties are protected – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our voting booths and in our immigrant communities.
Now, I know many of you – and millions of others across the country – were closely following Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court, to strike down major provisions of an Arizona law that would have effectively criminalized unlawful status.
As President Moran has noted, this ruling constitutes an important step forward – as it confirmed the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate on immigration issues so that our nation speaks with one voice in this important area. I’m pleased that the Court recognized this. At the same time, I remain seriously concerned about the potential impact of other sections of the law, including the requirement for law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of any person lawfully stopped or detained when they have reason to suspect that the person is here unlawfully.
As the Court indicated, this is not a license to engage in racial profiling. And I want to assure communities in Arizona and around the country that the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce federal prohibitions against racial and ethnic discrimination. We will closely monitor the impact of this and other measures to ensure that they don’t conflict with federal immigration and civil rights laws. We are committed – as President Obama has stated – to “uphold[ing] our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
This commitment is reflected in the important action that the Department of Homeland Security took just two weeks ago, when they announced that certain young people – who may have been brought to this country illegally by their parents, but who pose no risk to public safety or national security – may soon receive relief from removal and apply for work authorization. This common-sense approach to focusing our enforcement resources will help to make our immigration policy not only more efficient and cost-effective – but more just.
But this isn’t where the story ends. And this action – by itself – does not constitute a permanent solution. That’s why this Administration – starting with President Obama – will continue to fight for the passage of the DREAM Act; and work with Congressional leaders from both parties to achieve comprehensive, fair, and lasting immigration reform.
Of course – as LULAC members know all too well – this never has been, and will not be, easy. And, although the direction we must take may be clear, the road ahead is far from certain.
That’s why organizations like this one must keep up – and continue to expand – your critical work. Call on policymakers to move beyond partisan gridlock and political “gotcha” games and, instead, reach for sustainable answers. Raise awareness about what’s at risk. And, above all, keep seeking out and seizing opportunities to build upon the remarkable progress that LULAC has already helped to bring about; keep working to ensure that our nation is a bright star of hope – and beacon of opportunity; and never forget the responsibilities that define us as Americans – and must always unite us as one people.
Uno para todos, todos para uno. Thank you all. Gracias LULAC.