Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
Esperanza's National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast
Andrew Mellon Auditorium
May 12, 2011
Good morning. Buenas dias.
Thank you, Reverend Cortés, for that introduction. And thank you for your passionate advocacy on behalf of the Latino community.
Under your leadership, Esperanza has helped so many at-risk Latino youth turn around their lives and become strong workers and strong leaders. You have shown policy makers in Washington that skills training and job opportunities make all the difference in giving youth offenders a true second chance to succeed.
Now, last week, I had the good fortune to participate in an inspirational press conference on Capitol Hill. I joined distinguished members of Congress and the Latino community to endorse a plan to build a Smithsonian American Latino Museum on the National Mall.
Think about how far we've come. We're on the Supreme Court, in the President's cabinet, in Governors' mansions, and in the leadership of Congress. We're CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leaders of the American labor movement.
We're leaders in politics, sports, culture, and business. We've even seen a Latino farm worker become an astronaut. He went into outer space and Tweeted in Spanish about the wonder of the world below.
For me, our success as American Latinos only sharpens our responsibility to help the millions who are still struggling. I know what that struggle feels like.
I had a humble upbringing and was raised by wonderful immigrant parents, who taught me the meaning of dignity, love and respect. My father, Mexicano, will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farm worker and a railroad worker.
Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, the air was not always fit to breathe. In my zip code, we had a Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills, including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Nine miles away in area code 90210, Beverly Hills, there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, zero chemical plants.
My father was a Teamsters shop steward. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and helping him translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. Their pay was meager. The work was dirty. The conditions were unsafe. It wasn't fair.
As a child of the '70s, I remember feeling helpless seeing so many young men from my neighborhood go to Vietnam and never come home. Few in my high school graduating class went to college.
Most enlisted in the military or joined the nearest factory assembly line. I had a strong sense, at a young age, that there were haves and have-nots in this world.
My father taught me to channel my anger and energy into helping others. I became the first member of my family to go to college. I prepared for a career in public service, because I believed there was something worthwhile in making a difference for my community.
One of my greatest accomplishments while serving in the California state Senate was to change the conditions in neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. It wasn't easy, but I pushed through a new law to prevent companies from dumping their toxic chemicals in neighborhoods too poor to say "no." It was the first environmental justice law of its kind to pass in America.
The book of Proverbs says, "He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker." And there's an old Hebrew teaching that says: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land."
These biblical passages outline my responsibility to fight for immigration reform and to fight as Labor Secretary for the have-nots.
That starts with education. During my tenure, we have focused on training our Latino and African-American workforce. Just last week, I signed a memorandum of understanding to partner with 450 Hispanic Serving Institutions to prepare our Latino youth for the jobs of tomorrow.
Also, our "We Can Help" campaign continues the work my father started in my hometown of La Puente by protecting workers who are afraid to speak up against dangerous working conditions. No worker should have to risk their lives for their livelihood.
Also, the Department will soon use our authority to certify applications for
U Visas as part of our Wage & Hour investigations. We know that Latinos in communities across the nation are facing great hardship and can be especially vulnerable. U-Visas will protect immigrant workers who are sometimes afraid to speak up about abusive situations, including when they are victims of crimes like trafficking and involuntary servitude.
My message is simple and clear: All working people, regardless of immigration status, have protection under our laws. Employers are to abide by those laws, and at the Labor Department, we are proud to enforce them.
Immigrants are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They are our grandfathers and our founding fathers. No matter how they got here, every immigrant in this country deserves the full measure of dignity and respect owed to all of God's children.
It's why as we've worked with the Mexican and Salvadorian consulate offices to inform workers of their basic rights and protections under the law. For example, workers have a basic right to receive minimum wage, overtime and workers compensation benefits.
Last year alone, we collected over $53 million in back wages for 75,000 exploited workers in low-wage jobs. This includes many Latino immigrants who experienced wage theft as farm workers, garment makers, janitors, car wash handlers, or hotel/restaurant employees.
Fighting for these workers every day is why I am honored to serve in President Obama's cabinet. Twenty-four Labor Secretaries came before me, but it was President Obama who asked me, the first Latina, to be No. 25. For breaking down yet one more barrier, I thank our President.
This President is leading on immigration reform forward, even in the face of party-line opposition.
It was President Kennedy who said: "Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
President Obama believes this. I know he does. I've had the privilege to get to know our 44th president, when the microphones are off and there are no cameras clicking. And I want to say something from my heart: This man's commitment to racial and social justice is real. And his vision for a more sane and humane 21st century immigration system is deeply personal.
As Labor Secretary, I am proud to work with this President to bring 11 million people out of the shadows. We will go after those who prey on the poor and exploit the undocumented. We will hold accountable businesses that don't give their workers a living wage that cheat them out of their paychecks and don't pay necessary taxes.
It won't be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. It may not be quick. The forces of the status quo are lined up against us. But we will press forward. We will not stop.
Together, we will fight for our Latino brothers and sisters and create a better America.
Que Dios los bendiga... gracias. Y, si se puede.