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

Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration
New Jersey City University
Jersey City, New Jersey
Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thank you Senator Menendez, for that wonderful introduction and for carrying the torch in the Senate on so many issues of critical importance to the Latino community.

Senator Menendez has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform. He knows it's a civil rights issue, and he knows the only way we'll make progress on this issue is if our community speaks with one voice.

I know the environment on Capitol Hill is tough these days. There are a lot of new leaders in the House of Representatives that have a different idea about the kind of country America should be. But Bob Menendez has continued to speak out in favor of the DREAM Act, because he knows it's wrong to deny our best and brightest the chance to earn an education or serve in the military. Our DREAMers cannot control how their parents arrived in this country. They can only control what they do with this opportunity. Our Latino youth deserve a chance to obtain legal status by excelling in school or fighting for America.

In Washington, D.C., there are two political parties with two very different visions for this country. The House Republicans just proposed a funding bill for next fiscal year that would gut employment and training programs at a time of 9 percent unemployment. They also propose eliminating all funding for Community Health Centers supported under the Affordable Care Act — clinics that so many Latino families rely upon to get medicine and treatment. They want to eliminate our program at the Department of Labor that works with companies to fix workplace safety hazards before workers get hurt or killed. Their bill would get rid of programs that help at risk-Latino youth go back to school and prepare for careers in the trades. And they would slash the Pell Grant program by $2 billion and restrict eligibility for college aid.

Brothers and sisters, hermanos y hermanas, we cannot stay silent in the face of these kinds of proposals. They are heartless. They are unwise. And they do not represent the kind of country we want to live in.

These priorities are so misguided during tough economic times, especially their assault on training programs and Pell Grants. We know how important a college education is for Latinos. I had the privilege of delivering the commencement address here at NJCU this past spring.

I was so proud to speak to a graduating class that looks like America — at a school that's located in one of the most diverse counties in this state. I walked past the Maya Lin sculpture by the visual arts building, and saw the word "art" written in 50 different languages. It's such a wonderful reminder that we're citizens of a vast and changing world.

There are 37 countries represented in the NJCU student population. And this university ranks in the top 100 universities nationally for graduating Latinos.

That's what Hispanic Heritage Month means to me. It means celebrating an inclusive vision of America that welcomes diversity and honors our accomplishments.

I wouldn't be standing before you today without Pell Grants and college scholarships. My mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua to escape poverty. She stayed home for many years to raise my brothers, sisters and me. She later went to work in a toy factory to help my family make ends meet.

My father was from Mexico and worked as a farm worker, railroad worker and as a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. Though our family could not afford much, we always had each other. My parents knew that the only way for their children to have a better life was to get an education. Without their moral and spiritual support, I know I couldn't have achieved so much.

I was a good student in high school, but I didn't think about college. No one in my family ever had. One of my school's counselors told me I wasn't college material. He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary.

As it turns out, he was half-right: I was suited to be a Secretary.

The Secretary of Labor.

I remember my high school's career counselor, Robert Sanchez, was the mentor who made such a difference in my life. He told me not to listen to the other counselor. He put the college application in my hand and told me to fill it out. So I did. I owe him so much.

Today, as the Labor Secretary, it's my job to support programs that help put Americans back to work. For Latinos, the 11.3 percent unemployment rate is unacceptably high. By 2018, we will represent 18 percent of the workforce. We're the fastest-growing group in the country. But right now, Latinos are less likely to have a college degree than both their white and African-American counterparts. Latino workers earn only 70 cents on the dollar compared to whites. We know we can turn these numbers around.

Three weeks ago, President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act. It's a big, bold plan to invest in our workforce and the Latino community. I want to tell you today about five important things this bill does.

First, it provides a tax cut that will benefit about 250,000 Latino-owned small businesses, not big corporations, to help them hire and expand now. It also provides an additional tax cut to any business that makes new hires or increases wages for its workers.

Second, it will put teachers back in the classroom to teach our young people. This bill will prevent the layoffs of up to 280,000 teachers whose jobs are threatened by state budget cuts — as well as police, firefighters, and other first responders we depend on to keep our communities safe.

Third, the President's plan will help more than a million Latinos who are still out there looking for work by extending unemployment benefits. Without the President's plan, they will lose their benefits at the end of the year. This is no time to cut this lifeline to families in need.

Fourth, the American Jobs Act puts more money into the pockets of 25 million Latino workers by cutting in half the payroll tax that comes out of every worker's paycheck. Letting middle-class consumers keep more of what they earn means more confidence for local businesses — and a boost in demand for their products. This is the jolt a stalled economy needs to create jobs.

Fifth and finally, the President's plan won't add a dime to the deficit. It's fully paid for through a balanced deficit reduction plan that closes corporate tax loopholes and asks the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.

Every day, people in this country are working hard to meet their responsibilities, especially Latinos. The question now is whether Washington will meet theirs. Congress needs to follow the lead of public servants like Senator Menendez. They need to put country ahead of politics, and pass the American Jobs Act.

So I'll close today with one of my favorite quotes from our President.

It's from a speech he gave this year calling on Congress to reform our immigration laws. I think it captures the spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month.

The President said:

"We didn't raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world. We raised it with its light to the world. Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship, whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande, we are one people. And we need one another."

We sure do, my friends. Amigos y amigas, today I'm asking you to get involved. Your country needs you. You don't have to run for office to make change happen. You can change your country by being an active citizen.

Pick up the phone, write an email, attend a town hall, talk to your Representative. Make your voices heard.

Together, let's create a future that's even brighter than our past. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.