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Kennedy: Leaders Must Confront Immigration Challenges

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Thank you so much, Mitch, for that warm introduction and for reaching across the aisle to invite me today. I'd also like to thank Gary Gregg, Director of the McConnell Center, Chairman Evan Buckley, Provost Shirley Willinghanz and the entire Board of Trustees for hosting me.

I also want to offer a special appreciation to all the alumni and current McConnell Scholars Program students, who've made us feel a tremendous welcome, and the Kentucky General Assembly and Louisville Metro Council members joining us today.

I'd have guessed Giacomo had better odds at 50-1 in last year's Derby than I had of drawing such a crowd here, and I'm grateful to all of you.

Coming to Kentucky always reminds me of the Kentucky Irish poet James Mulligan, who wrote these famous lines:

"The moonlight falls the softest, in Kentucky. The summer days come oftest, in Kentucky. The bluegrass waves the bluest; The songbirds are the sweetest; The thoroughbreds are fleetest; The landscape is the grandest; And the politics the damnedest, in Kentucky."

Not long ago, I was about to deliver a speech in Virginia, when a heckler in the audience jumped to his feet and shouted: "Senator Kennedy is a horse's rear-end." I'm paraphrasing just a little bit.

Right away, members of the audience rushed to my defense, roughed him up, and threw him out.

So I said to the chairman of the event, "I had no idea this was Kennedy country." And he said, "It isn't. It's horse country."

Mitch, as you all know, is the Majority Whip in the Senate. I used to be the Majority Whip too -- back in the last century, when Democrats actually had a majority in the Senate. And I've told him to enjoy it -- all the way till November.

But seriously, every day I see how much the people of Kentucky mean to Mitch and how skillfully he advances the ideals he holds so strongly. He is admired and respected by all of his colleagues and for good reason.

Mitch and I share a passion for public service, and so does his wife Elaine Chao. We know that our nation's future depends on many things, but one of them is certainly the strength and ability and dedication of the men and women in public service.

So it's a special honor to be here with you all at the McConnell Center -- where "Leadership, Scholarship, and Service" are your mission -- and I congratulate you on the recent opening of this brilliant new facility.

For 15 years, the McConnell Center has had extraordinary success in training the next generation of Kentucky's and the nation's leaders, and what I see here today is an impressive sign that your future here is bright.

It's also a privilege to be back in the beautiful Commonwealth of Kentucky, which holds some wonderful memories for the Kennedy family.

I remember how moved my brother Bobby was on a visit here to meet with the heroic mining families of Pike County in Eastern Kentucky, and how important that visit was in convincing him to do all he could to eliminate the injustice of poverty in America.

Jack campaigned here in Louisville in October 1960 in Jefferson Square. Richard Nixon had been here too a few weeks before and had mistakenly claimed that Thomas Jefferson was a Republican.

Jack picked up on the mistake and used it often in the final weeks of the campaign. He'd say, "Sorry Mr. Vice President. Thomas Jefferson's one of ours. You didn't have FDR either. And Theodore Roosevelt left the GOP as soon as he could."

And then Jack would add, "But you can claim credit for McKinley, Coolidge, Harding, Hoover, Dewey, and Landon."

Today, I'd like to speak to you about the importance of public service and political leadership in helping our nation confront its pressing challenges.

Not blue-state liberal challenges or red-state conservative challenges, but American ones that require all of us -- private citizens, students, Massachusetts Democrats and Kentucky Republicans -- to come together.

Throughout our history, America's been blessed that men and women of conscience, ability, and vision have responded to the nation's call in times of great need. That's most certainly true of the people of Kentucky.

There was the great Henry Clay -- who should have been President by many estimates -- but who still found a way to shape a nation's destiny in the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he was rightly known as the "Great Compromiser."

There was John Sherman Cooper, a Republican Senator who had the courage to stand up to Joe McCarthy at the height of his powers, taking enormous risks in a day when it was perilous just to be a Republican in Kentucky.

Senator Cooper was a giant. I only wish he hadn't inspired his young aide Mitch McConnell to work so hard to build the Republican Party here.

But you don't have to be a Senator to hear and heed the call of service.

Last year, we lost Rosa Parks, who through her simple, brave, and eloquent act shamed a nation into finally confronting the vast discrimination that many chose to ignore for so long.

Without her act of civil disobedience, how much longer might we have waited for the spark of conscience to ignite the determination of millions of Americans to demand change?

We do not make the world we live in, but we do have the chance to change it. As my brother Robert Kennedy told students in South Africa in 1966:

"Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Each of us has the power to send forth a ripple too, and I know that many of you are doing it now.

When I look back over my years in the Senate, I'm amazed at the progress we've made on issues of social justice, economic opportunity, and basic fairness, and it gives me hope for our future.

When I first came to the Senate in 1963, nearly half of our senior citizens lived in poverty and ill health. Women were not equal in the workplace, and we know too well how the ingrained system of segregation made African Americans second-class citizens, under constant threat of violence.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Medicare. Women's rights in the 1970's. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991, all helped our nation come closer to living up to its ideals.

None of these were easy, and each required the sustained commitment of private citizens and elected officials of both parties to overcome entrenched opposition.

When the Senate was debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw segregation in public accommodations, we faced an intense filibuster.

Martin Luther King, Jr., fearing it would succeed, appealed to supporters to join protests of segregated restaurants.

Two who responded were the elderly mother of Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody, and the elderly wife of the Episcopal Bishop in Massachusetts. The sight of these two women being arrested and jailed for sitting-in at the Ponce De Leon restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida attracted enormous national attention, and the ripples of hope they sent out helped create a national current that swept away the filibuster.

Time and again throughout our history, we see the lesson that individual citizens have great power to find solutions to our problems. All they have to do is try.

Our Founders did not know exactly how to create the world's most enduring democracy, and President Lincoln did not know how to keep the Union together.

President Roosevelt did not have a handbook for pulling our nation out of the Depression. Harry Truman did not have all the answers immediately after World War II to rebuild Western Europe.

But at each of these critical times, they did have Americans ready, willing and able to serve their fellow citizens and reach out to others in troubled lands.

There's no doubt that we're in a similar time of extraordinary challenge today, and again we'll need to call on the American people to help guide us through.

One challenge is our response to September 11th, and a world transformed by the realization that never before have Americans faced so many unpredictable dangers from so many unseen enemies. Never has the very idea of America itself been under this kind of assault.

The uncomfortable truth is that no one has all the answers to meet this unprecedented danger -- no individual, no one in any political party, no one person in any state, no one member of the House or Senate, and no one in any other nation.

We all need to be part of the response to this new threat -- we cannot shrink from the public square and leave it to others. We must do our part -- especially in Iraq.

In my view, we need to work more aggressively to ensure that the Iraqis will immediately form a broad-based national unity government -- only such a government can achieve the compromises necessary to prevent a full-scale civil war.

We also need to push for the disbanding of the private militias in Iraq that our Ambassador there has rightly called "the infrastructure of civil war."

We need to work harder as well to meet the other essential needs of the Iraqi people, many of whom still lack electricity, clean water, and basic services.

Another great challenge we face is to make globalization work for the American people.

For fifty years after the end of the cold war, America dominated the world economy. Europe and Japan were still struggling to rebuild after World War II, and much of humanity was trapped behind the walls of Communism.

We made wise decisions that enabled this prosperity to flourish, like educating a generation of returning soldiers through the GI Bill of Rights, and thereby creating an educated and growing middle class.

But today, our edge is slipping -- other countries want their turn in the limelight.

Just-in-time delivery, the Internet, and the emergence of the educated and entrepreneurial class in India and in China are forces that are changing the world in profound ways.

As New York Times reporter Tom Friedman says, "It's been 500 years since the world was considered flat, but that's what it's become again."

We're not living up to these challenges of education in the new world economy. America's fallen from 3rd to 15th place in producing scientists and engineers, and now we're 28th in math and science -- tied with Latvia.

Last year 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher learning in China -- and 350,000 more graduated in India. The United States -- the only nation ever to put a man on the moon -- produced only 70,000.

The fiercely new competitive world is taking its toll on middle-class Americans who see their American dream undermined by depressed wages, job losses, the evaporation of their pensions, and the soaring costs of higher education.

The question for us is whether we're going to do what it takes to give our people the power to succeed in the skills-intensive industries of the new global economy, or whether we'll simply let them fend for themselves and watch America's economic might wane.

As in other times, we don't have all the answers, but we know a few prudent steps we can take immediately.

One thing we need to do right away is remove the economic barriers to higher education -- our economic security is at stake, and we can't permit the cost of college to be a barrier to achievement any longer.

We also need to create a new social contract with young college graduates. If they'll commit to teaching math and science in our public schools for several years, we'll release them from the staggering debt of college loans that too often dictates a graduate's choice of career.

We also need to give older workers the new skills they need to qualify for new types of employment when old skills are no longer in demand.

Part of the answer to this challenge is to make good health care available to all Americans. The current system is failing more and more citizens every year. It's both a moral failure and an enormous drain on our economic competitiveness.

In this new century of life sciences, extraordinary new breakthroughs in medical research hold enormous promise.

America is blessed with the best hospitals -- like University Hospital right here in Louisville -- and the most creative researchers in the world, but far too few of our people receive their benefit.

Among industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 22nd in average life expectancy and 25th in infant mortality. Over 46 million of our people have no health insurance, including half a million in Kentucky -- and even more in my Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The ramifications are severe. Every year, eight million uninsured Americans fail to take their prescription drugs, because they can't afford them -- 270,000 uninsured children with asthma never see a doctor -- and 27,000 uninsured women are diagnosed with breast cancer.

The costs of health care wreak havoc for our competitive position in the world economy. Ford Motor Company spends more on health care than it does on steel for its vehicles, and unpaid medical bills cause nearly half of all personal bankruptcies in the country today.

To remain competitive, it's time for change. Sick children can't learn in school, and sick workers can't earn on the job.

We need new ideas and a renewed commitment to solve this problem.

One thing we could do is to transform health care administration by incorporating information technology and use the $140 billion we'd save annually to expand Medicare to cover all our people.

Medicare's worked brilliantly for seniors, and it could do the same for every American if we only have the will.

But no current issue more clearly illustrates the difficult twin challenges of security in a post-9/11 environment and the forces of globalization confronting us -- or our need for real leadership -- than the immigration debate now playing out on radio and television and in homes across this country.

The history of America is the history of immigration. My own ancestors were confronted with "No Irish Need Apply" signs when they arrived in Boston fleeing from the Great Famine in their homeland.

Generations of immigrants have performed difficult labor in exchange for modest, and often meager, wages, and each successive wave has earned their way into the American family through hard work and perseverance in the face of countless obstacles.

In doing so, they've given new vitality to the American dream, continuing proof that in this land of opportunity, anyone can build a better life for themselves and their families.

It is this belief -- this powerful belief in American possibility -- that has made us the most economically dynamic, creative, and upwardly mobile society the world has ever known.

It's an optimism captured in Emma Lazarus' famous words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . "

This openness was directly challenged by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which have forced us to acknowledge some difficult facts.

One is that we have no idea who the 11 million undocumented aliens living in our country are. Decades of relegating these workers to the shadows -- forcing them to work off the books and out of sight -- has created a substantial security risk today.

Another uncomfortable truth is that the $20 billion we've spent enforcing our immigration laws in the past decade has accomplished very little. Too many have tragically died in the desert trying to cross our border, and vastly more have found a way to enter the United States without fear of interception.

Sadly, the same is also true of those who would do us harm.

As the debate unfolds, there is a strong pressure by some to simply beef up the "enforcement only" approach.

They would build higher walls to keep aliens out and round up and eject undocumented workers already here, separating them from family members who are here legally.

This is the shortsighted approach adopted by the House of Representatives that has sparked growing opposition across the country. It's inhumane -- and it's also unworkable, because it requires people to come forward willingly so that they can be deported.

Will anyone with a job and a family and new roots here in America do that?

More importantly, will any terrorist do that?

Part of the intensity of this throw-them-out attitude is born of genuine frustration in the inability of our government to provide better homeland security.

But part of it too is fueled by a demagoguery that fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of undocumented workers are hardworking, honorable people who make great contributions to our economy and seek only to provide for their families.

Without question, our immigration system is broken. But how we fix it has enormous implications for our national security, for our economic vitality, and for preserving our status as a beacon of hope and opportunity throughout the world.

The stakes couldn't be higher.

Last week over a million immigrants marched in our streets. Peaceful and proud families waved the American flag and celebrated their adopted homeland.

They are calling on us to show the world that America will stay true to its values of fairness. They seek no special favor except the opportunity to earn legal status in the land they love.

I'm proud that the Senate seems headed on this path. Our Judiciary Committee approved a strict but fair bill last week that establishes a reasonable process through which undocumented men and women can apply for legal status.

They must go to the end of the line. They must pay a $2,000 fine and undergo strict background and security checks. They must learn English, pass a basic civics test, and make good on any back taxes.

For those willing to fulfill these requirements in good faith, our Senate says, we will help you come out of the shadows.

But the debate is far from over. Some will continue to appeal to fear and prejudice. It's essential therefore for people of good will to make their voices heard in their communities and with their Members of Congress.

The outcome of the debate will have far-reaching consequences for the type of nation we'll become in the 21st Century, and the choice is up to us -- all of us.

It won't be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

Two centuries ago, Henry Clay was ridiculed when he proposed the American System, a far-reaching plan to link the economic fortunes of the North, the South, and the growing Western sections of our country.

People called it heretical to think of using federal power to build national roads and take other steps to unlock the interior bounty of our country by linking other regions with our large eastern seaports.

Many wanted to leave such development to the states or private interests. But Clay knew that neither had the ability or incentive to see such investments through.

Settling the West and opening it to expansion was an urgent national issue in Clay's day, and it required that we respond as a nation to the challenge.

That's what we need to do again -- respond as a nation to the powerful forces that are reshaping our planet.

I'm committed to doing all I can to address these great national challenges in the years ahead, and I'm deeply honored to be have the opportunity to work on them with your great Senator Mitch McConnell.

I hope we'll both get the chance to take these challenges on with some of the bright young McConnell Center scholars in the room today. Thank you very much for hosting me today.

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