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Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor at LULAC Unity Luncheon

Location: Cincinnati, OH

Good afternoon everyone. Buenas Tardes. Thank you Brent (Wilkes) for your introduction and for your outstanding commitment the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. I'd also like to recognize your President Margaret Moran for her tremendous leadership on behalf of all Latinos. Thank you, Margaret. It's a special honor for me to be here.

For more than 80 years, LULAC has worked to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of all Latinos in the United States. And this isn't my first time speaking at LULAC. In fact, I have a long, proud history with this organization. I go way back with some of you here. We've been supportive of each other over the years. We've stuck together.

So I've been thinking about LULAC's mission and about the theme of this luncheon; unity -- "la unidad." We gather at time when the conversation about our future as a nation is getting sharper by the day. I don't have to tell you that folks across the country are facing incredible challenges and are asking some very tough questions about their future and, perhaps more importantly, about the future of their children. This is especially true for Latinos -- and for all vulnerable communities for that matter. But here's what I also know to be true about Latinos: Unity -- the notion of coming together -- is nothing new to us. We're born into it. We call it "comunidad."

And for generations, from the farm worker movement, to the civil rights movement in Texas, and even to electing our current President, it has been the strength of our community, our fight for a better life -- nuestras ganas -- that has continued to define not only our success as a people, but the incredible progress of our nation as whole. Moving forward will be no different.

Totaling close to 50 million, Latinos are an economic and political force to be reckoned with. Our purchasing power is valued at $1 trillion and growing. In states across the country, our voting power is proving to be more decisive than ever. And, by 2018, Latinos will make up 18% of the U.S workforce. We're not going anywhere. And our growing presence has many implications about the critical role we will continue to play not only in shaping the future of our economy, but in winning it, too. President Obama knows that, and he's put together an all-star team to tackle the issue on all fronts.

At the Labor Department, we provide two main vital services: workforce training and enforcement of wage, hour, and safety laws. We are committed to collecting back wages for workers who are exploited and paid less than what they're legally owed. And we did that yesterday, right here in Cincinnati.

Today I am pleased to announce a measure of justice for 21 animal handlers employed by Hamilton Avenue Animal Hospital. The animal handlers will receive more than $85,000 in back wages and penalties. Our investigators found that the hospital owners falsified records and failed to pay overtime. This case was particularly outrageous. Workers routinely worked over 40 hours.

They would receive a check for their full wages -- and then be forced to repay the hospital owners in cash for the overtime hours that they worked. If they didn't comply, these workers were threatened with deportation. This practice was used to deceive the government into believing they were complying with the law. The hospital clearly understood its legal obligations, but it took advantage of workers they believed wouldn't stand up for their rights. Well today, we're putting a stop to it.

But the problem of underpaying Latino workers vulnerable to threats of deportation is not limited to Ohio. We're seeing this trend play out in communities across the country. Let me give you just one more example. In my home state of California, we've found these same kinds of abuses in the garment industry. A company called Joe's Jeans manufacturers blue jeans that are sold at high-end retailers like Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales. They used a contractor to try to get around wage and hour laws. They had 110 workers. Most of them were Latino. These workers were given a flat rate for each pair of jeans they stitched. But the rate was so low -- and the hours were so long -- that their take home pay fell way below the minimum wage. So the people who are making the jeans are earning pennies, while their bosses are selling them for 100 times that amount to high-end retailers. It's not right. And our commitment to ending this type of exploitation is an important part of our economic recovery.

I know a lot of folks are frustrated with the pace of our recovery -- the President has even said that he wished jobs were being created more quickly. But this administration has made historic investments in the Latino community. From education, to the auto industry, to small businesses, and onto skills training, we've made a lot of progress.

Allow me to remind you of where we were just two and half years ago. Entire industries were being threatened. Credit had frozen. Our economy was on the verge of total collapse. But thanks to this President, and to the swift actions of this administration, we pulled this country from back from the brink. Communities were asking to make it easier to access federal funding. . They were asking for relief to be funneled directly into their neighborhoods... into their barrios! So that's what we did.

I set out to meet fisherman in the Gulf Coast, construction workers in Nevada, injured workers in Texas, and youth in Puerto Rico -- all of which had a hand in crafting DOL programs that have reached millions of Latinos to date. We've provided employment services to more than 3 million Latinos -- more than 600,000 of which found jobs. With Recovery Act money, we pumped $150 million into communities of color to provide training for green jobs and create Pathways out of Poverty. And we've invested in job training for high growth and emerging industries like healthcare, renewable energy, and IT. We were able to help more than 2,000 Latino workers impacted by trade -- more than half of which found jobs. We've invested more than $200 million in Puerto Rico to support green job training and to provide relief in the wake of Hurricane Otto.

Our training initiatives have supported community colleges, veterans, low-income and older workers, and youth especially. We've asked employers from around the country to create summer jobs for at-risk youth. To date, our private sector partners have provided nearly 80,000 summer job opportunities to keep kids off the street. Our Youth Build and Job Corps programs -- designed to provide opportunities to young people -- continue to give low-income youth a second chance in life. Last year, thousands of young Latinos were served through the YouthBuild program and more than half of Latino youth coming out of Job Corps received their GED. -- many found jobs in construction and renewable energy. But I know we need to do more.

We need to continue to support the economic growth of small and minority businesses.

And we need to continue to make smart investments in education, in skills training and advanced manufacturing... by partnering with employers to make sure we're creating direct pipelines -- from the classroom to the factory floor.And believe me; we in Washington have many ideas about how to support job growth. But, Congressional Republicans have used our fiscal situation to ram through cuts to important programs. Every federal agency, including mine, has been affected. So we are relying in part on the collective power of private organizations, community groups, financial institutions and advocacy leaders to help make up the difference. So I'd like to tell about a few of the ways we're making that happen.

Earlier this month we announced $11 million in grants to provide job training and support services to adult offenders returning to their communities after having done time. It's all part of our effort to boost local economies and give ex-offenders a second shot. Some of these people are former Veterans who fought hard to defend our country. Last week, I hosted an event with Attorney General, Eric Holder to discuss strategies about how to provide young ex-offenders the support they need to come back into their communities, get good jobs, and do good by their neighbors. We announced $20 million to provide these young people service opportunities and skills training that will help them go back to school and pursue career pathways.

We also have $33 million available under our Jobs Accelerator Challenge. This program focuses on supporting what we call "industry clusters." Some of the best-known clusters include the technology cluster in the Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical cluster in North Carolina. When innovation and collaboration are infused into communities like these, they create and retain higher-wage and sustainable jobs, leverage the flow of private capital, and encourage economic development.

We're also making $240 million available to public/private partnerships that commit to creating training programs to support industries where employers are using H -- 1B visas to hire foreign workers. Employers shouldn't have to look abroad to find workers. Americans can and should be enough. So we're making sure that people can get trained for jobs in advanced manufacturing, allied health, and other technology related fields. This is particularly beneficial for Latinos who are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields. In 2010, a measly 7.1% of those in professional, scientific and technical services were Latino. And as the fastest-growing group of workers in the country, we need to pay special attention to how Latinos fare in these industries.

But this isn't just a Latino issue. Our nation as a whole needs improvement in this area. That's why the President is urging the private sector to help us train 10,000 new American engineers a year. And it's why we need to desperately pass the DREAM Act. We got so close last time around, and I know LULAC had a big hand in that effort, but we need to keep pushing this. It's no secret that immigrants are innovators and incredibly entrepreneurial. Immigrants represent 24 percent of U.S. scientists and nearly half of U.S. engineers with bachelor or doctorate degrees. We've got to harness that kind of talent, not push it away.

But in states across the country, some lawmakers haven't gotten that message. Most recently, we've seen it in Texas with SB9 and with legislation in Alabama that makes it a crime to give undocumented persons a ride the grocery store and that goes even farther by requiring schools to check the immigration status of their students. A measure that begs the question: At a time when this country needs all the talent it can get, are lawmakers really trying this hard to deter innocent young people from getting an education? It's not right and it makes no sense -- not for people, and certainly not for our economy. There are countless young people out there who just want a chance to do good for this country, and there are mothers and fathers who want to provide a better life for their children.

I was raised by immigrant parents, so I know that many of these families endure a daily struggle guided by great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. When I hear stories about families that have been separated, or a fearful worker who's been treated terribly, or when I meet brilliant students, with beautiful dreams who can't make them come true, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because I think about my family, about the people who raised me and how much they've meant to my life. My parents came to this country with only the best of intentions -- to work hard, make a decent living, and give my six siblings and me a better life than they had.

I know many of you here have your own immigration stories, and I know many of you may be frustrated or discouraged. You want clear answers and information. I get that. Our frustration stems from the fact that we are still fighting for reform. We've learned that the stories we tell are even more powerful when we also talk about the economic benefits that immigrants bring to EVERYONE in this country. We need to make sure people know that immigrants boost local economies, that they pay into social security, and that they do things like build our roads and harvest our crops.

And I want to tell you that under this President's leadership, we've made some strong progress in protecting immigrant workers at the Department of Labor. We've signed agreements with the Consulates of Mexico and El Salvador and with that of Nicaragua and Guatemala to provide added safeguards to vulnerable workers. We've also launched a campaign to make it easier for vulnerable workers to know their rights -- in many cases, to let them know they actually HAVE rights -- to be able to speak up on the job and file complaints -- without fear. Through our H2A program, we've provided increased protections for foreign workers who come here to harvest our fruits and our vegetables. We've signed an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security stating that the INS or ICE agents will not intervene in on-going field investigations we are conducting on behalf of vulnerable workers, many times prosecuting unscrupulous employers that are cheating people out of their wages. And we've begun the process of certifying U Visas for victims of crimes like trafficking and involuntary servitude. This will help us go after low-road employers and let people stay here to be able to testify and defend their human rights.

Additionally, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently issued a letter to all of its field offices and special agents in charge. It provided new guidance to the Secure Communities program about the proper treatment of immigrants in a number of sensitive situations. It directed agents to pay particular attention to safeguarding the rights of victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other serious crimes -- provisions that are particularly beneficial to vulnerable immigrant women. The new guidance provides immigrants added safeguards in many ways. Take for instance a college student with no criminal background, or an innocent family member, or a worker is trying to form a union. In all of these instances, officials have now been directed to apply immediate discretion in order to safeguard the most vulnerable among us.

But we need to do more. We have to take hold of the way people talk about this issue and about all immigrant people. And it starts with changing the conversation. The President believes we can't fix the system and change hearts and minds until we turn the temperature down on the rhetoric. He is leading that conversation, and it's in our collective interest to help him. From this debate, it will become clear to Latinos -- and to everyone -- what the facts are and who is on whose side.

That's what the President is trying to do. But he can't do it alone. We need to help him. You need to host forums in your communities with businesses, faith leaders and community-based organizations to get the facts straight on this issue. I recently hosted a forum at East Los Angeles College that drew over 350 people to discuss immigration reform and the DREAM Act. We can't just preach to the choir here. We need to cast a broad net and have this conversation with everyone.

As a woman -- and certainly as the first Latina Labor Secretary -- I believe the Latino community has special responsibility. We have strength in our numbers. We must talk to our family, friends and neighbors. And we must register more people to vote -- especially Latino youth. Every month, 50,000 Latino youth become eligible to vote and we need to register all of them. We must prove to all Americans -- especially those who disagree with us -- that comprehensive immigration reform is in our national interest! I'm optimistic that we can do that. But we need to do it together.

At a time when all of us are being asked to do more with less... when emotions are running high on everything from job creation, to healthcare, and especially on the topic of immigration reform... we'll have to do what we've done for years. We'll look to one another. We'll rely on the strength of this community. And with generations of progress as our guide, we will make it through, and we'll come out better and stronger because of it. Thank you again for having me here. God bless you. And Godspeed.

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