Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns remarks to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities' (HACU) 11th Annual National Capitol Forum Washington D.C.
SEC. MIKE JOHANNS: Well, thank you very much for that very nice, warm welcome and the kind introduction. I appreciate it immensely. My timing must have been pretty well. I walked in I think, literally, as the introduction was starting. So I feel good about that.
It is great to be here today. I'm going to talk about a number of things, but let me start out just to say congratulations. This year marks HACU's 20th anniversary, and that is a significant milestone. You now represent more than 450 colleges and universities, and that also is a significant milestone.
In the United States your member institutions now serve over two thirds of all Hispanic college students. That's remarkable. You obviously provide a critical service, and USDA is very proud to be a partner in your efforts.
That's why I am very pleased right at the outset of my comments today to announce that we will be signing a new memorandum of understanding between HACU and USDA after my comments today.
Our objective is to develop programs and activities to increase employment and educational opportunities in USDA for students and educators of HACU-member institutions. Some of the new steps we are taking include significantly increasing Hispanic-serving institutions' access to research, to education, and Extension Service resources, including Title VIII and other Farm Bill provisions.
We are also going to establish a scholarship and academic support program for agricultural migrants to pursue a degree in any area of agriculture, food sciences, or Extension education. In addition, HACU will be utilizing your extensive network to assist the USDA with targeted recruitment for executive level positions as we encourage more Hispanics to pursue careers in public service.
The USDA-HACU leadership group will continue to oversee our joint efforts, and based on their past successes I know that we can look forward to an even brighter future for our partnership and for our collaboration.
USDA has been an official partner with HACU since 1990, and in that time it's been recognized multiple times as a model for federal partnerships. The HACU internship program is one of USDA's most effective tools in opening Hispanic students to new experiences, to new opportunities, especially to the many diverse career paths in challenging USDA jobs.
More than 20 percent of USDA HACU interns are now working at the USDA as permanent employees. That's an incredibly successful story. More than 20 percent of our HACU interns work at USDA every single day. I'm very proud that these young Hispanic men and women are helping us serve the American people.
A recent survey though of former interns indicated that 96 percent of them would recommend family and friends to pursue employment at the USDA, 96 percent; while 93 percent of interns said that they would consider working for the USDA in the future.
They've obviously had a great experience.
Now at a time when baby boomers are approaching retirement -- I'm proof of that -- I simply cannot overstate the value of having such a thriving internship program. And it is certainly thriving. In 2005, USDA sponsored 98 HACU interns in the spring, summer, fall adding to the more than 650 HACU interns that USDA has sponsored since the year 2000.
These are the kind of measurable results that show that the partnership is working, that it's valuable, and it deserves to be strengthened by the MOU that we will sign today.
Another one of our programs, the Public Service Leaders Program, covers the cost of two to four years of full tuition and books and provides mentoring and leadership training. Upon graduation students in this program become full-time employees and agree to work for their respective agencies for one year for each year of financial assistance that they've received.
The USDA Public Service Leaders Program has welcomed four classes of public service leaders since 2002. The 16 students who have graduated in that time are working as international trade specialists, human resource specialists, civil engineers, and range scientists.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are the leaders who will solve the challenges of tomorrow as agriculture progresses into the 21st century.
I am glad that we can help to cultivate a bright new generation while simultaneously providing opportunities for these young people and diversifying our federal workforce. At USDA we are also reaching out to the Hispanic community in a number of other ways.
Ensuring that all eligible families receive the nutrition assistance that they need is one of our priorities. USDA helps to meet these needs whether it's Food Stamps, School Lunch, School Breakfast, or Women, Infants and Children program.
President Bush successfully sought to make legal immigrants who live in the U.S. for five years eligible to participate in the Food Stamp program. The proposal benefited nearly 400,000 Hispanic families, and it became a part of the law as a part of the 2002 Farm Bill. And that represented an important step in the ongoing effort to improve access for low-income households.
Home ownership is another major part of the American dream. And USDA has worked to ensure President Bush's Minority Home Ownership Initiative is moving forward.
Through a partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, USDA is improving the living and economic conditions of rural residents of the Southwest border region. During the past three years, $55 million has been provided to support development and improvement of living standards in many of these local communities-- while $35 million has been invested to assist with business development, job creation and with housing.
Through this program alone, we have helped nearly 600 families living along the U.S. and Mexican border to become homeowners and minority home ownership today stands at a record high 51 percent.
I'd like to take a moment to talk about a subject that is of vital interest to our nation as a whole and agriculture in particular, and that's immigration policy. America's strength lies in our diverse citizenship. We are a land of promise, and we are a land of opportunity. Our character and values have always been shaped by the courageous immigrants who leave their homes to find a new life in America.
Each of us shares an immigrant experience in our own family. We all have forbears who came to this country to seek new opportunities and a better life for themselves and for their families. We know their stories and we know their dreams. And we are fulfilling them today.
My own grandparents were among those immigrants from Poland.
To this day immigrants strengthen our nation and they strengthen our agricultural workforce. Our impressive production in export statistics are only as good as the strawberries that are picked at their peak and only as good as the tomatoes that are harvested in time and not abandoned in the field. From the avocado and citrus groves of California and Florida to the lettuce fields of Arizona or Ohio, large numbers of immigrant workers labor by hand for short, intermittent periods at critical times during planting and growing seasons and especially at harvest time to produce the blemish-free fruits and vegetables that we as consumers enjoy.
We need these workers to keep American agriculture competitive. But we know that illegal immigration creates a class of workers who quite honestly are vulnerable to exploitation. Here in Washington there's been a lot of debate on immigration policy lately. There's more to come.
President Bush has laid out a program for securing America through immigration reform. There are a number of components to this program including securing the border, ending the practice of "catch and release", and improving worksite enforcement. Additionally, the President has proposed a new temporary worker program to allow workers to register for legal status. This allows producers to fill crucial jobs with willing laborers, and it is also a compassionate approach to protecting all workers in America with labor laws, the right to change jobs, fair wages, and decent work environments.
Tighter border control and worksite enforcement do have a relationship. With the new guest worker program, each is more effective with the other in place. With an efficient guestworker program, laborers can benefit from fair wages and greater security.
I'd like to share with you an interesting statement from a New York Times article that appeared last Wednesday. This is a quote from a guestworker from Mexico. The Guestworker Program allows him to earn a higher wage than he would if he were working illegally, but he said this. He said, "The most important benefit is," and I am quoting from the worker, "that you don't risk your life crossing the border," unquote.
Temporary worker programs allow people to safely come to the United States and to earn a living here in the United States before returning home to their families. The problem is that without tight border control, immigrants will continue to enter the United States unlawfully, and they can be vulnerable to exploitation.
Since they are working outside the law there really are no legal safeguards to protect them. It's an unsatisfactory system by all counts. America needs temporary workers. We cannot produce such abundance without them, and temporary workers need an effective, predictable system that allows them to work here fairly and legally.
As the Secretary of Agriculture, it is my job to look out for the best interests of agriculture. I support the President's strategy to reform immigration policy, the tighter border security, more stringent enforcement and an efficient guestworker program. I believe that we can maintain our remarkable productivity without sacrificing the ideals that made this nation great.
President Bush said this, and I'm quoting again, "We are a nation of law, we are also a compassionate nation. We've got to treat people with respect and with dignity."
I would like to thank you for having me here today. I look forward to the continued success of our partnership, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of your forum.
Thank you very much.