How about everybody else? I don’t have a magic answer for you. This is a difficult issue, and sometimes those of us in public service need to stop pretending like difficult issues have easy answers. They don’t. It’ll require an open conversation across this country about what we want to do. How can we create and deal with this issue in a way that both honors our legacy as a nation of immigrants but also honors our legacy as a nation of laws? How do we balance those two things? Well that’s at the core of this issue. And it must be confronted because the status quo is unsustainable.
This issue is a deeply personal one for so many people in this room. I know it is for me. A few months ago—you may have read about it, maybe you didn’t it—I got some dates wrong in my parents’ immigration history. And it created some difficult, you know, uncomfortable days. It was a blessing in disguise. You know what it made me do? It made me do something that we don’t do enough of. And that’s go back and discover who our parents were when they were our age. What were their hopes and dreams? What did they want out of life? Where did they want to go and what did they want to do with themselves? I had a chance to do that. And from the tattered pages of passports and the yellowed papers of olden documents, from across five decades, I clearly heard the voice of people I never really met.
Of my father who came here as a young man and didn’t find instant success. He went to New York—it was too cold. He came to Miami—it was too hard. He went to Los Angeles—it was too California. He went back to Las Vegas the first time. He came back to Miami. He was discouraged. He struggled as a young man who grew up in poverty in Havana after his mom died and then he was struggling here too. He had hopes and dreams for himself. He wanted to own a business and he thought America was the place he could do it and he struggled. And he was discouraged, and he even made plans to go back to Cuba because of that.
I discovered this about my grandfather, who I thought I knew real well, but in fact he grew up in an agriculture family and as a young man he suffered polio. He lost the use of his leg—they sent him to school. He was the only one in his family who knew how to read and write. He got a good job running one of the railroad stations. His family lived comfortably—he had five daughters at the time. It was a heavy undertaking in that climate. And one day, from day to night, he lost his job. And instantly he was tossed, and his family was, into poverty and struggle. He was a disabled man in early twentieth century Cuba trying to find a way to feed his five—almost six—daughters. Struggling with that. My mother tells the story of how he would spend all day looking for work sometimes having to walk miles and come home at night his knees bleeding because he would trip and fall. Because he didn’t have the use of a leg. Tough life.
Why am I different than them? Am I better than them? Why have I had opportunities that they did not have? It was but for the grace of God. That’s true of all of us. I’ve been able to do things they didn’t because I’m here, in the single greatest society and the single greatest nation in all of human history. But it reminded me that their stories, although they’re gone, are still alive. They’re all around us. You find them in Home Depot when I drive up in my pickup truck, in the desperate look of faces of men that are looking for work. You find it in homes across this community and this country, where women work hard, long hours—sometimes without documents—to send money back home.
Of course there are people that abuse the system. But the enormous majority of the people that come here legally and illegally do so because they want a better life for themselves and more importantly for their children. And as we deal with this complicated issue I ask you: What if you were them? What if you lived in a country where your children had no hope and no future? Where your wife stayed up all night crying because she was afraid your son would join a drug gang. Where your children wept each night because you didn’t have enough food to feed them. What if you were there? Let me tell you—if I was there, there are very few things I would not do. There is no fence high enough; there is no ocean wide enough that most of us would not cross to provide for them what they do not have.
And that’s at the core of this issue and these people that we’re dealing with. Yes we have to have laws—they have to be respected. No we cannot legalize eleven million people. But they’re people. They’re human beings with real lives and real stories. And the complexity of the issue challenges the core and soul of our nation perhaps more than any other issue that we face. Because in the end, without immigration, there would be no America. And we would be just like everybody else. And the challenge of this century on this issue is how can we once again make this issue a source of pride, not a source of conflict. Something that unites us as a people, not divides us. Something that we brag about, not something that we fight over. How can we do that? Well that’s what I hope to be a part of. That’s what I hope events like this will be a part of. I hope never again that young people will have to stand up in an event like this and hold up a sign-- because the issue’s been taken care of, in one way or another.
That’s what we need to work towards. And it’s not easy, and it’s difficult, but it must be done. Because you see, throughout ages, even in the world today, most societies teach their people that who you are, is determined by who you come from. Who are your parents? What family were you born into? What neighborhood did you grow up in? What school did you go to, and what social circle do you run in? Because based on that is who you will be.
That’s the way it’s been for much of human history. That’s the way it is today in much of the rest of the world. And then there came America, where we said we didn’t care if your parents were poor, if your grandfather was disabled, or your dad was not connected. You can be anything you wanted - in fact we bragged about it, and we welcomed the world to come here and prove that anyone, from anywhere, can accomplish anything.
Today I took the liberty, it’s the only thing I wrote for today’s speech, well I printed it. I don’t have a (inaudible), I apologize. If you go to New York, there is a famous statue there, you may have heard of it, it’s called the Statue of Liberty. On it, is engraved the poem from Emma Lazarus, it’s called The Colossus, which speaks to our nation, and who we are. I’m not a big poetry fan, but this one, there’s nothing wrong with poetry. Now I’m going to get the poet people upset at me. You got to be careful, every vote counts.
This poem speaks to this battle between those nations who believe that who you are is determined by the circumstances of your birth, and us.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
And she says:
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, give me your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me,