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Department of Defense Appropriations Act--Conference Report --

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE APPROPRIATIONS ACT--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - December 14, 2007)

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I rise to express my deep disappointment that the Congress is taking up the conference report on the Defense bill without the hate crimes provision. I commend Chairman Levin for his strong leadership in our efforts to have it included as part of this measure. Despite his efforts, and the strong support of Majority Leader Harry Reid, it is an extraordinary missed opportunity that we are not able to send the hate crimes bill to the President before the end of the year.

The inclusion of the hate crimes provision in the Defense bill was appropriate. Our military stands for America's ideals and fights for America's ideals. At a time when our ideals are under attack by terrorists in other lands, it is more important than ever to demonstrate that we practice what we preach, and that we are doing all we can to root out the bigotry and prejudice in our own country that leads to similar violence here at home.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers are fighting for freedom and liberty. They are on the front line fighting against evil and hate. We are united in our effort to root out the cells of hatred around the world. We should not turn a blind eye to acts of hatred and terrorism here at home. We owe it to our troops to uphold those same principles here at home. We should not shrink now from our role as the beacon of liberty to the rest of the world.

If America is to live up to its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all, combating hate crimes must be a national priority. The hate crimes bill would have advanced those values and goals, and we are committed to getting it enacted. It is long past time for this measure to become law.

We are now facing a time when the FBI reports that hate crimes are on the rise, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of hate crimes reported against Hispanics--at the highest levels since the reports were first mandated by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, demonstrating the real societal impact of anti-immigrant campaigns.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also reports that hate groups are on the rise. Since September of this year, when thousands of Americans marched for civil rights in Jena, LA, there have been more than 50 noose incidents across the country. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times included a chart reflecting the ``Geography of Hate'' across America. Over the last 2 years, it shows that nooses have been sighted in many different States.

This terrifying symbol of racism and prejudice has even appeared recently on schoolyards and college campuses, creating fear in their whole communities. Apparently, we have not succeeded in adequately teaching the lessons of America's long history of discrimination. Education is an important part of prevention, but we also need strong national legislation to punish
those who engage in hate-motivated violence and to expand Federal resources available to investigate and prevent these vicious crimes.

As my colleagues here in the Senate know, Senator Gordon Smith and I have been fighting this battle for a long time. Just a few months ago, the hate crimes provision was adopted by the Senate with a vote of 60-39 as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill. It's not the first time that the Senate voted to pass this bill. In 2000 and 2002, a majority of Senators voted to pass this legislation.

In 2004, we had 65 votes for the bill and it was adopted as part of the Defense authorization bill. But that time, like this time, it was stripped out in conference. Twice in the last 2 years, Chairman Conyers has succeeded in getting the House to vote to pass this legislation--but, once again, the House and Senate have not come together to get this bill done.

We have been in this battle for nearly a decade, and we will continue to press ahead. It is long past time to stand up for the victims of these senseless acts of violence--victims like Matthew Shepard, for whom this bill is named, and who died a horrible a death in 1998 at the hands of two men who singled him out because of his sexual orientation. Nine years after Matthew's death--9 years--we still haven't gotten it done. How long are we going to wait?

This year, with Matthew Shepard's mother Judy at our side, we were filled with hope that finally this would be the year that we would get this bill to the President's desk. A broad and growing coalition of 210 law enforcement, civic, disability, religious and civil rights groups support the bill, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Anti-Defamation League, the Interfaith Alliance, the National Sheriff's Association, the Human Rights Campaign, the National District Attorneys Association and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Over 1,400--1,400--clergy from a broad spectrum of religious traditions from across the country have come together to support the Matthew Shepard Act. These leaders of America's religious communities have called on Congress to stand united against one of the worst forms of oppression: violence based on personal characteristics and identity. Together, we must work together to create a society in which diverse people are safe as well as free.

We will continue to fight to protect the rights of our fellow citizens, and not let a veto threat stop us from doing the right thing. We are not giving up. We will continue to push to get the bill through the Congress next year. I remain hopeful that the President will hear our call and that he too will finally support this much-needed measure.

Hate crimes are an appalling form of domestic terrorism that cannot and must not be tolerated anywhere in our country. We have made progress over the years, and our focus now should be to strengthen protections for hate crimes so that all Americans will be protected under the law. No Americans should feel that they are second class citizens because Congress refuses to protect them against hate crimes.

I am looking forward to voting for this conference report. At the outset I want to express a view that I know all of the members of the Armed Services Committee feel, and that is great respect for our chairman, Senator Levin, and Senator Warner, who has been past chairman of the Armed Services Committee and has a lifetime of commitment in terms of the security of our Nation and to the betterment of our Armed Forces. We are grateful for their leadership, and the country should be. I am also very grateful for their help and assistance, along with my colleague and friend GORDON SMITH, for a provision that was included in the Defense authorization bill but which has been subsequently dropped, and that is the hate crime legislation we had added which had been included at other times as well in the Defense authorization bill. It was included in the year 2000, in 2002, and now, by a vote of 60 to 39, was included in this legislation.

This legislation is to make sure our troops are going to be the best trained, the best led, and the best equipped. Also, the very serious efforts that have been made in terms of the health care that has been pointed out by the Senator from Washington and other various provisions of enormous importance.

What we are interested in doing is giving the support to our frontline troops. We ask ourselves: What are they doing? What is their task? Their task is fighting terrorism and fighting evil overseas--fighting terrorism and fighting evil overseas so that we are going to be safe and secure. It does seem to me if they are fighting against terrorism and evil overseas and they are fighting for American values overseas, they ought to also be fighting for American values here at home. The values here at home are to fight the terrorism and evil that exist here at home in terms of hate crimes--hate crimes--the types of crimes that are devoted and focused on individuals because of who they are. The kind of crimes that hurt not just the individuals but communities; the kind of crimes that have expanded significantly over the period of recent years.

America is a better America by not tolerating hate crimes. America is a better America when we are fighting hate crimes in the best way and with all of the tools we possibly can. We had that legislation. It was included. We had good debate on the floor of the Senate. We had bipartisan support for the hate crimes legislation. That same concept had been passed as an individual bill in the House of Representatives. The same concept was included in instructions from the House of Representatives 3 years ago that we should accept it. But this time, the House of Representatives refused to address it and we have seen that provision withdrawn. I think it was a significant and important mistake.

I wish to give to those who are committed to that program, that effort to try and deal with the problems of violence in America. We have all seen the challenges of violence in these past weeks. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, it is taking place in schoolyards and communities all over our Nation. This is violence caused by hatred, by people that are targeting individuals of different color skin, different races, different ethnic backgrounds, different sexual orientation.

So at another time we will bring this issue back to the floor of the Senate. We want to give the assurances of those who have been a part of this whole march which has taken place over the period of years since 1968 with the killing of Dr. King--this has been a continuing march. We haven't stopped. We will not yield. We will not give in.

I am grateful to the Senator from Virginia for yielding me this time. We will ultimately prevail. I thank the Senator.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I want to echo the comments of my friends from Maryland and Oregon. The original Iraq Refugee Crisis Act included language similar to the conference report and the Cardin amendment to the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill. As the original author of the legislation, I can assure you it was my intention to provide Iraqi SIV recipients with the full array of benefits available to refugees. Moreover, SIV recipients are not to be counted against immigrant caps, nor are they counted against U.S. Refugee Admissions Program caps.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I commend the conferees for including the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act as part of this conference agreement.

I am grateful to the chairman and ranking member for supporting this needed provision, and I also appreciate the support of Senators Smith, Hagel, Biden, Brownback, Lieberman, Leahy, Snowe, Voinovich, Feinstein, Collins, Obama, Dole, Menendez, Mikulski, and Clinton, who joined in sponsoring the original amendment when it was adopted by the Senate by voice vote during our debate on this bill.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act requires the Secretary of State to establish a refugee processing program in Iraq for Iraqis threatened because of their association with the United States. Applicants must demonstrate they have a well-founded fear of persecution. Iraqis who will now be able to apply directly to the United States rather than going through the United Nations referral system,--include: Iraqis who were or are employed by or worked for the United States Government in Iraq; Iraqis who were or are employed in Iraq by a media or nongovernmental organization headquartered in the United States, or by an organization that is closely associated with the United States mission in Iraq and that has received U.S. Government funding through an official documented contract, award, grant, or cooperative agreement; and Iraqis who are members of a religious or minority community with close family members in the United States.

The act allows the Secretary to suspend in-country processing for periods of 90 days, with a report to Congress on the reasons for any suspension.

In addition, the act makes available 5,000 special immigrant visas each year for the next 5 years for Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. Government in Iraq and are endangered as a result. Applicants must have a positive recommendation or evaluation from a senior supervisor and be approved by the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq or his designee. The provision sunsets after 5 years. These visas, because of their special status, are not counted against immigrant caps nor are they counted against U.S. Refugee Admissions Program caps.

Under the act, Iraqis granted special immigrant visa status are eligible for 8 months for the full array of benefits traditionally provided to refugees by the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement. The provisions under the act would defray the cost of transportation and provide prearrival admissions assistance and up to 8 months of postarrival resettlement assistance to those Iraqis who come to the U.S. on special immigrant visas. Senators Cardin and Levin are the primary authors of this provision and, have spoken eloquently for it.

The act also allows reapplication by Iraqis in the United States who have been denied asylum, in part, because conditions in Iraq changed after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

In addition, the act directs the Secretary of State to designate a high-level special coordinator at the Embassy in Baghdad to handle issues related to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. The coordinator will be responsible for overseeing in-country processing of refugees and special immigrant visa applicants, and will have authority to refer persons directly to the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Similar positions would be designated in the American embassies in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

The act also requires the Secretary of State to consult with other countries about resettlement of refugee populations and to develop mechanisms in countries with significant populations of displaced Iraqis to ensure the refugees' well-being and safety. U.S. financial assistance would be provided in such cases to help meet the cost of caring for the refugees and protecting them.

These measures are urgently needed to address the immense human costs of the war in Iraq and its tragic effect on the millions of Iraqis--men, woman, and children--who have fled their homes and often their country to escape the violence.

A significant number of courageous Iraqis have worked with the American military, the staff of our Embassy, or with American organizations to support our mission in Iraq. Their support and loyalty have cost too many lives already, and their families have often been forced to flee their communities or even their country because of the danger.

The target of the assassin's bullet is on their back, and we owe them enormous gratitude. But instead of giving them needed help and protection, we have too often offered only bureaucracy and dubious hopes.

Regardless of where we stand on the war, Congress is united in believing that America has a fundamental obligation to assist Iraqis who have courageously supported our forces and our efforts in Iraq and whose lives are in peril as a result. The provisions in the agreement are a long-needed attempt to fulfill our commitment to them.

Despite the clear and present danger faced by many Iraqis because of their ties to the United States, their religious affiliation, or their work with media, nongovernmental or humanitarian organizations, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees must go through a long and complicated referral process of approximately 8 to 10 months, in which the United Nations serves as an intermediary outside Iraq. This act cuts through much of that redtape.

Obviously, we cannot resettle all of Iraq's refugees in the United States. But we need to keep faith with the Iraqis who have worked so bravely with us and for us and supported our mission in Iraq, and whose lives are in serious danger now because of it.

A few months ago, I had the honor of meeting SGT Joe Seemiller, a young man who is haunted by the military motto, ``Leave No Man Behind.'' Sergeant Seemiller is dedicated to helping the translator he was forced to leave behind in Iraq. On countless occasions, his translator helped to avoid serious American and Iraqi casualties. He braved innumerable death threats and the horrific murder of his brother. Finally, he had to flee to Syria, where he waited more than 2 years for the opportunity to be resettled in the United States.

The Refugee Crisis Act, makes clear that America has a fundamental obligation to assist Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of their close ties to our Nation. I look forward to working with the administration in the months ahead to implement this important humanitarian legislation.

I urge my colleagues to support the conference agreement.

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