Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala
It's an honor to be here with all of you tonight. And I've got to tell you, looking around this room, I'm reminded of the story Congresswoman Roybal-Allard tells about the CHC's first meeting three decades ago. Back then, her father, Congressman Edward Roybal, approached the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, to ask for a room for the meeting. O'Neill responded with his signature humor - by asking if a telephone booth would do, because there were so few members.
Well, I don't think Congressman Roybal could have imagined that meeting would one day give rise to a gathering like this, and to an organization that's training the next generation of Hispanic leaders all across America - helping young people graduate from high school, and attend college, and become leaders in their fields.
I come here tonight as the first African American nominee of the Democratic Party because generations before me did that same work to break barriers and open doors. And I hope that because of the work all of you are doing, somewhere in this audience sits the person who will become the first Hispanic President of the United States.
The work of this organization reflects the character of the Hispanic community in which so many people have come here with so little - but had big dreams, big hearts, and a willingness to struggle and sacrifice so the next generation doesn't have to. It's the same reason my own father came here from Kenya so many years ago - because he believed that America was a place where you can make it if you try.
Today, that fundamental American promise is at risk. Our nation is at war and our economy is in turmoil. More Americans are out of work, and have mortgages they can't pay, and cars they can't afford to drive, and wonder how they'll ever afford to retire. And we've all seen the statistics - we all know the Hispanic community has been especially hard hit.
Now, we didn't get here by accident. The challenges we face are - at least in part - the direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of the folks in the White House these last two terms.
And last week, we watched as the same party responsible for the past eight years asked this country for another four.
Now, I'm happy to see that in the past few days, Senator McCain has finally realized what we've known all along - that the American people are hungry for change. And he's finally ready to have a debate about who can deliver that change. Well, that's a debate I'm eager to have. Because the truth is, on the issues that matter most in people's lives, Senator McCain is offering nothing but four years more of the same.
Senator McCain has worn our country's uniform with bravery and distinction, and for that, we owe him our gratitude and respect. But we also owe ourselves a close look at his record and his agenda for America.
He voted with George Bush ninety percent of the time - and while in recent days, he's railed against Washington lobbyists, he's neglected to mention that his campaign is run by Washington lobbyists. He said that our economy has made "great progress" under President Bush, and offers the same old philosophy that's failed us for decades: give more to those with the most and hope prosperity trickles down to everyone else.
So there are many words to describe Senator McCain's agenda - but change isn't one of them. It's the same old politics and the same old policies that haven't worked for the past eight years and won't work now. And it's time for something new.
We know that government can't solve all our problems - and it shouldn't try. But it should work for us, not against us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American willing to work.
That's what this election is about.
This election is about the families - including so many Latino families - who are losing their homes and their jobs, and working jobs that pay less and come with fewer benefits. They need us to solve this housing crisis, and end these tax breaks for companies shipping jobs overseas, and give real tax relief to middle class families. That's what I'll do as President.
This election is about the Latino students who attend overflowing classes in underfunded schools and are dropping out of school faster than nearly anyone else. They're counting on us to stop leaving the money behind for No Child Left Behind, to recruit an army of new teachers, and make college affordable for anyone who wants to go. That's what I'll do as President.
This election is about the 45 million Americans who don't have health care - one in three Hispanics - and about the small business owners who can barely stay afloat because of rising health care costs. They're counting on us to guarantee health care for anyone who needs it and make it affordable for anyone who wants it. That's what I'll do as President.
This election is about the veterans - including so many from this community - who serve this country so bravely, but come home to new battles to get the benefits they've earned. They're counting on us to build a 21st century VA, and pass a 21st century GI Bill of Rights, and provide good health care, including mental health care. That's what I'll do as President.
This election is about the 12 million people living in the shadows, the communities taking immigration enforcement into their own hands…they're counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves, rise above the fear and demagoguery, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform.
Now, I know Senator McCain used to buck his party by fighting for comprehensive reform - and I admired him for it. But when he was running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his stance, and said he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. And when it came time to write his party's platform, comprehensive reform never made it in. So you've got to ask yourself: if Senator McCain won't stand up to opponents of reform at his own convention, how can you trust him to stand up for change in Washington?
Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular. That's the commitment we made in our Democratic Party platform. That's why I was proud to champion the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. That's why I was proud to stand with you in those marches for immigration reform. And that's the kind of partner I'll be in the White House.
Now, those 12 million people broke the law. And we cannot excuse that. But we cannot deport 12 million people. Instead, we'll require them to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for citizenship - behind those who came here legally. At the same time, we'll secure our borders and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. That's how we'll reconcile our values as both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.
Making this kind of change won't be easy. But it's what so many of you are doing in our communities every day. It's how I started my career, working with community leaders - black, brown and white - on the South Side of Chicago, helping families devastated when the steel mills closed down and the jobs dried up.
So I've got to tell you, I was pretty surprised when I heard our opponents making fun of that work last week at their convention - mocking what so many Americans do every day in church groups and unions and the PTA to serve struggling communities. Frankly, I don't think it's particularly funny that people are losing their jobs and their homes. I don't think that failing schools and crumbling neighborhoods are something to laugh about.
And I've got news for John McCain: coming together to give back to our communities, that's how a lot of us - Democrats, Republicans and Independents - that's how we put our country first. That's why I'm running for President.
But I can't do this alone. So I'm here tonight to ask for your help. Some of the closest contests this November will be in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico - states with large Latino populations. And Latino voters will play a critical role all across this country.
And if you have any doubt about whether you can make a difference, just remember how, back in 2004, 40,000 registered Latino voters in New Mexico didn't turn out on election day. Senator Kerry lost that state by fewer than 6,000 votes. 6,000 votes. Today, in 2008, an estimated 170,000 Latinos in New Mexico aren't registered to vote.
So I'm not taking a single Hispanic vote for granted in this campaign. We're meeting with Latino leaders and reaching out to Latino organizations to get input on my policy proposals. We've got a nationwide Hispanic media strategy, and we're holding Latino voter registration drives across America. And when I'm President, I'll be asking many of you to serve at every level of government.
In the end, though, what's at stake in this election is far bigger than any one party or platform or candidate. We all know that. It's what we learned in the hardest way possible on that September day, seven years ago tomorrow, when in the face of unthinkable tragedy, we came together - black and white, Latino and Asian, from every region and religion and walk of life. Those losses were all our losses - that suffering was all our suffering. And at that darkest moment, we understood that here in America, we all have a stake in each other; I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper; and we rise and fall as one nation.
It's the very idea that brought five members of Congress together three decades ago to found the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And it's what's brought us here tonight - the belief that America should be a nation where we pursue our individual dreams, but still come together, as one American family, to ensure the next generation can pursue their dreams too.
It's time that our politics reflected that understanding. It's time that we turned the page on the failed policies of the past and brought new energy and ideas to the challenges we face. And if you're willing to work with me, and fight with me, and stand with me this fall - together, we won't just win an election, we will transform this nation.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.