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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
MALDEF 2011 San Antonio Awards Gala
Friday, September 9, 2011
San Antonio, TX

Good evening everyone! Buenas tardes, MALDEF!

Thank you, Tom, muchas gracias, for that wonderful introduction.

It's great to be back in the lone-star state! And it's great to be back with so many of my long time allies and dear friends — con mi gente... con mi familia Latina. Receiving an award from MALDEF — an organization that exists to promote equality and human rights — means so much. And tonight's three recipients are so very deserving. Let's give them a round of applause.

Paul, Raul, Genoveva: For your commitment to the advancement of our people and for the lasting impact your work will have on our nation as a whole, muchisimas gracias. Congratulations!

I'm sure many of you have heard that the new Dr. King Memorial is open on the National Mall. In the same year that Dr. King tragically lost his life, MALDEF was founded as a ray of hope for a growing Latino community in desperate need of leadership and advocacy.

So, as I prepared for these remarks, I thought about the opening of the new memorial, about the spirit of Dr. King and its influence not only on MALDEF's work, but also about his influence on the three visionaries we honor tonight.

Because of Dr. King and those who followed him, the value of equal opportunity has been woven into the fabric of America. He once said, "Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better." That idea — the idea that with hard work and dedication, any person from anywhere in the world can achieve their dreams in America has made our country stronger.

We see that progress in images of the President of the United States to see how far African Americans have come. You can look at the highest court of the land to see how far women have come. And the fact that the daughter of working immigrants stands before you tonight as this nation's first Latina Secretary of Labor is testament that anything is possible in our country.

That's the story of our people. For generations, from the farm worker movement, to the civil rights movement here in Texas, to the election of our current President, it has been the strength of our community, our fight for a better life — nuestras ganas — that has continued to define not only our success as a people, but the incredible progress of our nation as whole.

Amigos y amigas, we live in a great country. But I don't need to tell you that right now folks across the country are facing incredible challenges. This is especially true for Latinos — and all vulnerable communities, for that matter.

But here's what I also know to be true about Latinos: Totaling close to 50 million — 25 million right here in Texas — we are an economic and political force to be reckoned with. Our purchasing power is valued at $1 trillion and growing. In states across the country, our voting power is proving to be more decisive than ever. By 2018, we will make up nearly 20% of the U.S workforce.

We're not going anywhere. And our growing presence has many implications about the critical role we will continue to play in shaping the future of our country. There's no question: our American family will only be as strong as our growing Latino community.

I believe that. So does President Obama.

I know where our nation's unemployment rate stands — I have to report it every month. Latinos and families here in Texas have been hit harder than most. But it's important to remember where we started. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month when President Obama took office. And since that time, we've created 2.4 million private sector jobs. We've added these jobs, but I know it's not enough. I know millions of families are still hurting. I know we've got a lot more to do.

That's why last night the President put forth a set of job proposals that pull good ideas from both parties that will provide immediate relief to those hit hardest by the recession. The President called on Republicans and Democrats to put politics aside and work together right now to help grow this economy. We've got to stand with him on this.

We need Congress to extend the payroll tax cut, to help millions of Latino families' make ends meet and benefit more than 200,000 Latino-owned businesses...

We need Congress to extend unemployment insurance for the millions of Latinos still looking for work who depend on these benefits to put food on the table...

We need Congress to pass legislation that supports a strong manufacturing sector that will allow our businesses to sell more products in countries abroad — products that we make, right here in America. . .

And we need Congress to make investments in our infrastructure. We've got hundreds of thousands of construction workers — many of them Latino — who lost their jobs in the recession. We can put them back to work right now rebuilding our roads and our bridges and new schools and airports right here in Texas. There's work to be done. These workers are ready to do it.

I know there's been a lot of talk in the news about the so called "employment boom" here in Texas. Yes, Texas has added jobs. But as much as some want to use that growth to score political points, we need to keep the conversation in perspective if we're going to make real progress. The fact is, many of the jobs that have been created here are low-wage jobs with few benefits — jobs that Latinos disproportionately fill and depress our communities. We can do better than that. The American people deserve more.

We need good jobs with decent wages that can support a family and cover the bills. Jobs that make sure our families don't have to choose between going to the grocery store and going to the doctor. Jobs that strengthen our middle class so that parents can give their children a better life than they had. And jobs that are safe and secure and give people a voice in the workplace.

That's our number one priority. It's a tall order, but that's what our President is all about, that's what MALDEF is all about, and that's what I'm all about.

My mother worked at a toy assembly plant and was a member of the United Rubber Workers Union, now the Steelworkers. My father worked in a battery recycling plant and was a Teamsters shop steward.

Many people have influenced me, mentored me, and inspired me: Dr. King who sparked my passion for civil and human rights; Dolores Huerta who had her ribs broken in the struggle but never her spirit; and Cesar Chavez, who inspired me and the world by simply saying: "Si Se Puede!" --Yes, We Can!

I am a product of: The women's movement. The labor movement. The environmental movement. The social justice movement. And I'm married to a small business owner.

I'm proud of all that. It is what defines me and shapes everything I do as Labor Secretary.

I want to tell you about the event we hosted at the Department of Labor a few days ago to launch Labor Rights Week. We teamed up with embassies from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and El Salvador to sign declarations to increase protections for migrant workers. We've signed similar agreements with Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Part of my job is to ensure that all of our nation's labor laws are respected. And this event last week is part of our broader effort to inform the Latino community of their fundamental labor rights. Indeed, labor rights are rights for all working people in this country.

Through our partnerships, we've made great progress to empower our most vulnerable workers to defend their rights to a safe workplace, to compensation for workplace injuries, to minimum wage and overtime, to nondiscrimination and the right to collective actions. We've hired more bi-lingual investigators and, since 2009, we've recovered more than $450 million in back wages for workers nationwide — more than $30 million collected on behalf workers right here in Texas.

We've launched a campaign to make it easier for workers to know their rights — in many cases, to let them know they actually have rights — to be able to speak up on the job and file complaints. Through new H2A regulations, we've provided increased protections for migrant farm workers who come here to harvest our fruits and our vegetables.

We've signed an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security preventing INS or ICE agents from intervening in our field investigations to safeguard vulnerable workers as we prosecute employers who have cheated them out of their wages. And we've begun the process of certifying U Visas for victims of crimes like trafficking and involuntary servitude. This will help us go after low-road employers and let people stay here to be able to testify and defend their human rights.

I've gotten a lot of heat on these issues lately. But people need to understand that every administration — Democrat and Republican — has sought to enforce the laws of this nation for all working people. I'm doing my job. And I will continue to make sure that all workers are treated fairly and kept safe on the job.

Allow me to speak briefly on the issue of worker safety, as the issue is of great concern to Latino workers. We know that Latino workers suffer both fatal and not fatal work injuries at higher rates than others. We also know that immigrants often work the most dangerous jobs and that they are disproportionally employed in agriculture and construction, sectors with high injury and fatality rates. Nearly 700 Latino workers died in 2010 and 13 Latino workers die a week in this country. In 2010, more than 400 people died on the job right here in Texas.

Think about that. It's not something we hear about every day, but it's a serious problem that is devastating to Latino families and to our nation as a whole. That's why we hosted a health safety summit here in Texas last year to let our most vulnerable workers know they have rights to a safe workplace. I heard from all kinds of workers — men and women who had survived after falling from the tops of buildings and some who had escaped being crushed by paving machines. They told me their stories — some in English, many in Spanish — and they told me the stories of their friends and colleagues who weren't so lucky.

I think about these people often. Especially when folks in Washington tell me that we can't afford safety regulations right now — that safety rules are "job killers." I think about the 12 people that die on the job every day in America and the families that they leave behind. They remind me how important it is that we continue to step up enforcement of our safety laws; that we make sure all workers can understand them; and that they apply to ALL working people in this country.

Fairness, equality and respect — that's at the heart of everything we do together, MALDEF.

That's why only weeks ago here in Texas you stood up to those who want to draw lines on the state map that cut Latinos out of the voting process. They want to keep us quiet because they know that when we speak up — when we stand together — there's nothing that can stop us.

But you won't let them do that, right?

We're a people that look out for one another. We're a people that believe in shared sacrifice, because we know that we rise and fall as one community — as one nation. We're a people who will do whatever it takes to make sure our children have the same opportunities that our parents gave us — better opportunities than they gave us. That's what binds us together.

That's why we need to continue to fight for immigration reform and to once and for all pass the DREAM Act! I know you're with me on this. But I know many of you may be frustrated or discouraged. You want clear answers, information and action. I get that.

At times, I feel disheartened, too. When I hear stories about families that have been separated; or a fearful worker who's been treated terribly; or when I meet brilliant students, with beautiful dreams who can't make them come true... it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart because I think about my family, about the people who raised me and how much they've meant to my life. And I know that many of you have your own immigration stories. Those stories are important. They bring us closer as a people, and they need to be told. But they also provide a unique framework for us to better make the economic case for the immigration system we wish to see in the 21st century.

This country has always been made stronger by our immigrants. Immigrants are hardworking, tax-paying, ambitious brave young women and men whose solid values enrich this country and contribute vastly to its well-being. They are scientists and engineers. They create jobs as small business owners and entrepreneurs. They build roads and harvest crops. Many pay into social security and boost local economies. And yes, immigrants are driven, smart and some the best students we have this country. Yet we have a system that continues to push them away. It makes no sense.

The President and I know that immigration reform is a moral and economic imperative. Passing the Dream Act on a national scale would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over 10 years because of increased tax revenues. I understand that the California Dream Act is on its way to Governor Brown's desk as we speak. As someone who has been working on this kind of legislation since the beginning of my career, I can't tell you how happy I am that California has taken the lead. This law will reap so many benefits — for people, for businesses and for our economy as a whole.

And the President knows this. I can tell you that the President's cares deeply about this issue. I speak with him directly about it. I've seen how he interacts with our community at every level, and it's sincere and heartfelt. But I know some of you feel frustrated. You see that the other party will do nothing about this issue, so you want this administration to do more.

The President is leading a national conversation on this issue. And he's been very clear with Republicans that he has done more than any President before him to secure the border. Our frustration stems from the fact that we are still fighting them for reform. This issue should not divide along party lines. We've gotten so close in the recent past, but now almost every Republican in Washington has withdrawn their support. It's not right — not for economy and certainly not for our families.

So, President Obama is right to keep pushing on this. We see the damage to our communities when families are separated — when spouses are torn apart and parents are taken away from their children who have citizenship. The President was right to have Department of Homeland Security agents focus their efforts on people who actually pose security risks in the U.S. He has committed anew to take the pressure off immigrant women, and young people who were brought here as small children, veterans and their spouses.

We've learned a lot in our struggle. We've learned that the stories we tell are even more powerful when we also talk about the economic benefits that immigrants bring to EVERYONE in this country. But we can't just preach to the choir. We have to be strategic. We have to prove to all Americans that comprehensive reform is in our national interest. We have to change the conversation. We have to take hold of the way people talk about this issue and about our people.

Tomorrow, Tom and I are going to sit down to do just that. We're going to host a "conversation on immigration" to get the facts straight and to talk about the roles we all play in this debate. It's an important step. So I would encourage all of you to do the same when you go back home. Host forums and town halls and have conversations not only with those who agree but, perhaps more importantly, with those who disagree.

I want you to remember one thing: we are with you. President Obama and I are with you on this issue. And I promise you that we will continue to do right by you in Washington. But we need keep building a movement for change outside of Washington, one our opponents cannot stop. One that's greater than this community. One with ganas!

Let us build that movement together. Let us renew our commitment to be that creative, dedicated minority that Dr. King spoke of and deliver on the promise of America — the promise that was kept for so many of us and that brings us together tonight.

Hermanos y hermanas that promise is in our hands. It is up to us to pass it down to all of our children — Latino, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, disabled, not disabled. By lifting up our community, we will lift up all of America at a time when this country is counting on us more than ever before.

Let us not lose heart. Let us keep fighting. Let us do the hard work that needs to be done to restore this country and make America the land where anyone can make it if they try.

Thank you, MALDEF for having me here tonight. Congratulations to all of our honorees.

God bless you y SI SE PUEDE!