Good morning to all of you, and what a great honor it is for me to be joining you here today on this enormously special day in your lives and hopefully it will become a very important day in our lives -- having witnessed you becoming a part of the American spirit and sort.
Thank you so much, Director Quarantillo, for your warm introduction and to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff here in New York, for hosting us today -- and for all you've done to help the men and women we're honoring today, to help them realize their dreams of citizenship.
As the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and as you heard, a native New Yorker, I am enormously honored to join Melody Barnes--my wonderful colleague--here to today on Ellis Island. As I look out at all of your faces here today in the Great Hall, I feel an enormous sense of pride. Pride for you, pride for our country, pride to be here on behalf of the President. And I am humbled to stand with you here today as you become part of our American family. Congratulations.
As Melody said, Ellis Island has for decades served as the nation's most iconic and historic immigrant gateway -- and has become a universal symbol for the hope and optimism embodied in the American immigrant experience.
It's estimated that over 100 million Americans--or roughly one-third of our entire population--can trace their roots to Ellis Island. But Ellis Island also means so much to those who can't trace their roots directly through Ellis Island as well. And I am one of those people because of my father, and I want to tell you a little bit about his story.
Born in Panama, growing up in Costa Rica and Lima, Peru, he as a nine-year-old was sent away to school a long distance in England. And he came to this country first as a nine-year-old on his way, a thirty-six hour plane ride to a new country alone as a young child, and one of the four stops along the way was right across the bay from us at Idyllwild airport. And his first experience with the warmth and welcoming of this country was the stewardess who took him off the airplane on the stop at New York City. Having just landed and seen the skyline, they took him to Coney Island, to that remarkable mecca of New York City. To ride the ferris wheels, to walk around the amusements and to be welcomed to New York as he was terrified to go so far away to school.
12 years later he came back to the U.S. just like you today with his American dream in hand to look for an education, which he got, to then start a business, to raise a family here and become part of the great American story that you join today. It's also a very special thing for me to be here today at Ellis Island because of one other person who I want to mention particularly who is with us today. More than forty years ago my father befriended someone who without what he's done over the past two decades, we would not be sitting here today and that's Stephen Berganti.
Stephen himself is tied to Ellis Island. His grandparents on both sides came through Ellis Island from Italy on their way to their search for the American Dream. He came as an after school history teacher to New York because of the vitality and diversity that the American experience here in New York City represents and 28 years ago he came to the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island foundation to save this great treasure as a monument to the great experience that you've become part of today.
Over those more than 30 years, Stephen has helped to rebuild this island to make it possible for us to be here celebrating today. He has helped find more than twenty million citizens and Americans who contributed to rebuilding this great home that we sit in today. And has helped more than thirty-five million Americans visit Ellis Island to understand their roots and the great immigrant experience that they are becoming a part of.
And thanks to Stephen, twenty years ago this year I had the pleasure of sitting in this hall to rededicate it and to open this museum to the public for the first time. Stephen, on behalf of all the citizens today, on behalf of my father who came to this country to find his own dream, I want to thank you for your leadership and your friendship.
That history is so important. As National Parks Service Superintendent Luchsinger mentioned, it's embodied in the very seats that you find yourselves in today, because the first 10 rows of the benches that you are sitting on right now, here in this historic Great Hall, are original to Ellis Island -- and were used by immigrants much like yourselves while they were waiting to be processed, and become Americans.
While decades separate us from those pioneers, the hopes and dreams we share as Americans unite us all. Just like you, men, women, children--indeed, entire families--all left their native lands and braved dangerous ocean voyages to get to the exact spot where you're sitting right now.
Just like you, many people who, without a cent to their names and without knowing anyone overseas, took a leap of faith into the great unknown and headed for America. And people who, just like you, understood these shared hardships and uncertainties for the freedom to live as they choose. To worship as they choose, to raise children in a land of promise and opportunity, and to know that because of their hard work and sacrifice, those children were going to have better lives and brighter futures.
Upon those benches where you sit today, you are making your own history -- adding your own hopes, dreams, and uncertainties to this rich tapestry of the American experience that for decades upon decades has been continually woven by immigrants just like you.
And today, in neighborhoods large and small, in communities urban and rural, and from coast to coast -- you can see the wonderfully diverse results. Particularly in a city like New York that celebrates that diversity that is what it is because of the immigrant experience. It is wonderful to be here today celebrating. Think about each of one of New York City's five boroughs, where on any given day your voices can be heard on street corners and in local businesses, in schools and homes. The fact that 138 languages in total are spoken just in the borough of Queens is testament to the incredible diversity of America.
On the West Coast, where my deputy secretary and close colleague Ron Sims hails from, the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle reigns as America's most diverse zip code. With one third African-Americans, and another third Asian--many who immigrated to this country recently--Rainier Valley is home to the West Coast's largest celebration of Filipino culture. Indeed, in the six square miles that make up America's most diverse zip code, 59 languages are spoken -- from Chinese to Somali, Spanish to Vietnamese, Tagalong to Khmer.
It's that very diversity that we see from coast to coast that is America's greatest strength. Those of you becoming citizens today come, as we said earlier, from an astounding 57 countries from around the globe. Just think about the wide variety of experiences, knowledge, and cultures that you and the neighbors sitting on both sides of you bring from your workplaces, your churches, and your community organizations.
Indeed, diverse, inclusive communities offer the most educational, economic, and employment opportunities to their residents -- and provide the best opportunities for young people to grow and to learn. Neighborhoods rich in culture and ethnicity cultivate the kind of social networks our communities and our country need to compete in today's increasingly diverse and competitive global economy.
And while we emerge from a housing and economic crisis that no doubt has touched the lives of each and every one of you, I want to assure you that the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities you represent is part of the solution to our economic crisis. The vitality and diversity that you bring to America's neighborhoods and economy--and the unwavering belief you have in the power of the American Dream--will help us all emerge as a smarter, stronger, and more resilient nation.
President Obama recently said--at a ceremony similar to this one--that, "today we celebrate the very essence of the country that we all love -- an America where so many of our forbearers came from someplace else. A society that's been enriched by traditions and cultures from every corner of the world. And a dynamic economy that's constantly been renewed by the talents and energies of each new citizen."
That's why in all that we do at HUD, and across the Obama Administration, in our neighborhoods and communities -- we must continue to ensure that every family and every community has the opportunity to thrive and prosper. We are the greatest test of diversity in the in the history of the world, and together, we must let the grand experiment of America continue to work in our neighborhoods and communities.
We must continue to weave the fabric of American cultures and backgrounds and beliefs that make our communities unique. And that make our nation strong. In closing, let me share with you the lyrics of an old American ballad that's been adopted by Irish folk singers across the world. It's a tune called "Emigrant Eyes."
"Old Ellis Island was swarming like a scene from a costume ball. Decked out in the colors of Europe, on fire with the hope of it all. There my father's own father stood huddled, with the tired and the hungry and the scared. The turn of the century pilgrims, bound with the dream that they shared."
To you, our nation's 21st century pilgrims, congratulations and welcome. Together, let us keep that dream alive. Congratulations.