Below are Senator Kennedy's full remarks, as prepared for delivery.
SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY REMARKS
NATIONAL LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE
Washington, D.C., May 1, 2007
Like President Kennedy, I hold the Anti-Defamation League in the highest esteem. Since 1913, you've been at the forefront of the battle to protect civil rights and end discrimination and bigotry of all kinds. With 30 regional offices around the country, you're an authoritative voice on these issues in the halls of Congress, and you're an indispensable ally today in the struggle to reform our immigration laws.
Our strong ties on that issue go back half a century. In 1958, it was the Anti-Defamation League that published the first edition of my brother Jack's book, "A Nation of Immigrants." He had been passionate about the issue as a Senator and had proposed far-reaching reforms as President. He was working on a revised edition of the book when he left us, and ADL published it in 1964 with a new introduction by my brother, Bobby. The book will be reissued again next year, and I'm deeply honored that you have invited me to write the new introduction for it.
The issue has been close to my heart as well throughout my years in the Senate. A century and a half ago, all eight of my great-grandparents crossed the Atlantic in the famous vessels that were known as "coffin ships" because so many failed to survive the arduous voyage. They arrived in Boston Harbor, came up the "Golden Stairs" and passed through the city's Immigration Hall on their way to a new and better life for themselves and their families. From my office today in Boston, I can still see those "Golden Stairs," and they're a constant reminder of that heritage.
Every time the Senate takes up the issue of immigration reform, I reread my brother's book for inspiration. The words he wrote half a century ago ring just as true today. As he stated, "This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action."
Immigrants still come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families, and they make invaluable contributions to every aspect of our society. Our ability to protect their rights is a test of our own humanity, and we have to get it right today.
The recent federal immigration raids on worksites in Massachusetts and a number of other states underscore the urgent need for reform. People suddenly see the issue in a new and clearer light. They're for strong enforcement of our immigration laws in the abstract, but they're appalled at the idea of rounding up and deporting twelve million undocumented men, women, and children living among them as part of their communities.
These are people who work hard, love their families, practice their faith, and contribute to their communities. We should provide a way for them to earn the privilege of remaining in this country and becoming American citizens. The Torah and the Talmud teach us that we must welcome the stranger in our midst. It is written in Leviticus that "[t]he stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt …."
If we refuse to give the current undocumented population a pathway to legal status, stronger enforcement efforts will only force them deeper into the shadows and allow employers to continue to exploit them. It perpetuates the current two-tiered economy, which hurts willing American workers, too. The world is watching to see how we respond to the challenge – whether we can achieve a forward-looking reform that makes the most of the talents of new Americans, or whether we will give in to fear and recrimination.
Extremist groups often attempt to capitalize on our feelings of vulnerability to blame immigrants for America's problems. But the ADL does a phenomenal job of setting the record straight. One of your recent reports shocked the nation by exposing the Ku Klux Klan's attempt to spread fears of an immigration explosion as a way to incite bigotry and violence against Latinos. Sadly, the current debate on immigration reform is being used by other extremist groups as well to poison the national dialogue and gain partisan advantage.
ADL also took the lead recently in exposing the outrageous response by some anti-immigrant groups to the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. By focusing on the ethnic background of the killer, they attempted to blame Asians, immigrants, and other minorities for the deaths of the students. That kind of bigotry undermines our growth as a nation and violates our founding principles. Those who hold such views have consistently been on the wrong side of history, and I say, "Shame on them."
What happened at Virginia Tech was an immense tragedy that none of us will ever forget. Nor will we forget the heroic efforts of Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor from Romania who saved his students' lives by holding the door of his classroom closed with his body. His courage was a tribute to humanity at its best. The background of many of the other victims, who came from India, Lebanon, Peru, and other places, also reminds us that we truly are a nation of immigrants.
I'm committed to working with Republicans in Congress and the White House to enact tough, but fair reforms that protect our borders, enforce our laws, and uphold the ideals on which our country was founded.
Our negotiations over the last few weeks have not been easy. One of the most contentious issues has been the treatment of family members of immigrants, which has been the cornerstone of our immigration policy for decades. Some Republicans have proposed a new system that would emphasize employment considerations to the exclusion of family ties. It would be a huge mistake to expand employment-based immigration at the expense of our historic tradition of family-based immigration. In addition to the obvious humanitarian considerations involved, we can't ignore the lasting contributions that family-sponsored immigrants have made to our economy by creating new businesses and services that generate jobs for our people.
The more they learn about the issue, the more the American people agree that a comprehensive approach is the only viable way to heal our broken immigration system. The elements of the system are so closely tied together that it makes no sense to drive a wedge between them. Border enforcement will be successful only if we regularize the status of the current undocumented population, create a temporary worker program that fulfills the needs of American business, and adopt a strict employment verification system to prevent employers from continuing to attract undocumented workers.
We face a critical choice – between a future as a nation of immigrants, or a future measured by higher walls and longer fences. We need to do all we can to create strong bipartisan support for this approach. The American people have waited long enough for immigration reform. The time is right, and the result is up to us.
May the beautiful words of the famous Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor inspire us now. May we always hold high her "lamp beside the golden door!"
Thank you very much.