Maryland Labor Secretary Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month
“Throughout history, America has been built and rebuilt by immigrants and their children.”
BALTIMORE, MD (September 22, 2011) – Maryland Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez, Maryland’s highest ranking Hispanic official, delivered the keynote address last night at Salisbury University’s Latino Heritage Celebration, touting Maryland’s diverse and educated workforce as a driving force in the state’s ability to compete in the New Economy. Yesterday’s address was the third speaking engagement Sanchez has been invited to deliver in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Earlier this month, he addressed the Maryland Hispanic Business Conference and keynoted the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Hispanic Heritage Month Luncheon.
At yesterday’s dinner, Sanchez, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, shared his family’s story of attaining the American Dream and extolled the contributions past generations of immigrants from all corners of the world have made to build the United States. He also spoke of the need to harness the skills of the next generation of immigrants, many of whom come from Mexico and Central and South America.
“We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. In Maryland, we’re proud of those strong, broad shoulders. We’re proud of our diversity and celebrate the contributions that immigrants past and present make to our quality of life,” said Sanchez. “Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to look back and celebrate, but it’s equally important that we look forward and give encouragement to the next generation of immigrants.”
During his remarks, Sanchez noted that Maryland’s New American workers are among the best educated and most skilled in the country. More than 40 percent of foreign-born Marylanders have a college degree. More than a quarter of the state’s scientists, a fifth of the state’s health care workers and a fifth of the state’s computer specialists are foreign born. Despite these promising trends, one out of four skilled immigrants is working in an unskilled job and 40 percent of immigrant adults are limited English proficient, resulting in lower wages and unutilized skills.
The Maryland Department of Labor (DLLR) administers several programs to help increase English proficiency and tap into the skills of Maryland’s immigrant community. DLLR offers free ESL classes at many of the state’s One Stop Employment Centers. The Welcome Back Initiative provides orientation, educational resources, access to language training and support that helps foreign-trained health professionals more easily navigate the licensing process to allow them to restart careers in the U.S. health industry.
During his remarks, Sanchez also urged support for the Maryland DREAM Act that will allow the children of immigrants who attended Maryland schools and whose parents paid taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition at Maryland’s community colleges. The Act passed the Maryland General Assembly and Governor Martin O’Malley signed the bill this Spring. Maryland is the 12th state, including California, Texas, New York and Utah, to pass legislation extending affordable college to Maryland high school graduates, regardless of the immigration status of the students’ parents, provided they have paid taxes in Maryland and are on a path to citizenship.
Opponents of the measure were successful in their petition drive to put the law to referendum on the 2012 general election ballot. Sanchez addressed opponents of the Act.
“The greatest challenge facing Hispanic immigrants – and Hispanic Americans – is a challenge that will require us to change people’s minds and soften their hearts. There is a small but vocal minority of children of immigrants past who believe that the American Dream is for their children, not ours,” Sanchez said. “All the DREAM Act attempts to do is ensure that children named Gomez and Santiago and Sanchez are treated the same as anyone else who lives in the State of Maryland.”
Prior to the Latino Heritage Month Celebration, Sanchez toured the Salisbury University campus, including the University’s new $100 million Medical Simulation Center set to open later this year. The complete text of Secretary Sanchez’s prepared remarks at Salisbury University follow.
The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation protects and empowers Marylanders by safeguarding workers, protecting consumers, providing a safety net and cultivating a thriving workforce that can meet the demands of Maryland’s dynamic economy. Follow DLLR on Twitter (@MD_DLLR) and Facebook.
Alexander M. Sanchez
Good evening. And thank you very much for hosting me.
I’m truly honored to be here today. It’s great to spend time with old friends – including Scott Jensen, who worked down the hall from me for a couple months before leaving for the greener pastures of academia. I also need to acknowledge President Janet Dudley-Eshbach. Madame President, there are very few university presidents in this country, let alone this state, who can tout the progress you’ve made over the last 11 years:
This is a celebratory evening. It’s Hispanic Heritage Month! And just like everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Hispanic this month – even those of you who weren’t lucky like me to be born Hispanic.
But this is first and foremost a month to reflect seriously on the opportunities and challenges we face.
And I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about those challenges and discuss what we can do to protect the American Dream and redouble our commitment to a skilled, educated and diverse workforce.
That conversation starts, though, with a retelling of America’s immigrant mentality. Make no mistake at all, this country’s greatest strength has always been its great diversity. Our American Heritage is undoubtedly built by the cultures and influence of generations of immigrants. In a very real way, those same immigrants have built and rebuilt this nation time and again. Whether it was Irish workers in our biggest cities, German farmers across our Great Plains, Chinese laborers laying rails across the continent shrinking our vast nation – immigrants have shaped our history, painted our skylines and given our lives, along with our meals, flavor. And the newest generation of immigrants is continuing that tradition.
It’s been said at these heritage events before that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us: Our parents, our grandparents. And looking out at this crowd and the accomplishments that all of you bring into this room, it’s more clear than ever that we stand on strong shoulders. In Maryland, we’re proud of those strong shoulders. We’re proud of our diversity and the contributions immigrants – past and present – make to our quality of life. And while any designated “heritage month” encourages us to look back on past contributions, I believe it’s an opportunity to look forward and give encouragement to the next generation of American Dreamers. In fact, that’s a belief I share with Governor O’Malley.
We are proud of our New American community. We’re proud that the world’s best and brightest look to Maryland. We’re proud that entrepreneurial immigrants have established businesses and made their lives in our communities.
Maryland is one of the nation’s best educated and most highly skilled states. That’s because of schools like Salisbury University.
But did you know that our immigrant community is even more highly educated than our American-born population? 43 percent of Maryland’s New American workers have a college degree, compared to 36 percent of native born workers. New Americans are leaders in important New Economy industries: 27 percent of Maryland’s scientists, 21 percent of our health care workers and 19 percent of our computer specialists immigrated to the United States and chose to live in Maryland because of the opportunities in our state.
And those three industries – science, health care and technology – are among the fastest growing job industries in the state. In fact, those three industries together added three times as many jobs from July 2010 to July 2011 than the entire state created.
Our immigrant community is driving job growth in high-skill industries.
Still, we face real challenges locally and nationally. And unfortunately, those challenges seem to impact Hispanic immigrants more disproportionately than other immigrants. There are language barriers, and right now 40 percent of immigrants – many Hispanic immigrants – are Limited English Proficient. Because of that, as many as one out of four skilled immigrants in our state are working in unskilled professions.
The Maryland Department of Labor has made efforts to increase English proficiency. We offer free ESL classes at One Stop Centers across the state. We’ve improved the New American Professional Workforce Registry. We’re investing in Welcome Back Centers to help immigrants transition from low-skill jobs to high-demand professions in the health care industry.
These are programmatic challenges, though. Challenges that can be addressed with public policies and outreach. The far greater challenge facing Maryland’s and the United States’ Hispanic community is one that will require us to change people’s minds and open people’s hearts.
To put that moral challenge in perspective, I’d like to take my final couple of minutes before Question and Answer to talk about a public policy – specifically, the Maryland DREAM Act.
Earlier this year, Maryland passed the DREAM Act, providing the minor children of undocumented immigrants an opportunity to develop skills to compete in a New and American Economy. It was a proud day in our state. Our Governor, the descendent of Irish immigrants, and our Lt. Governor, the son of a Jamaican father and Swiss mother, stood with school-aged Marylanders, raised in our state but born in another country, and signed a bill that makes the American Dream more attainable.
Unequivocally, the DREAM Act is the right thing and the moral thing to do. But it also makes business sense: Better educated people earn more money, pay more taxes and consume fewer government services.
Sadly, though, there is a small, but vocal community of children of immigrants past who believe that the American Dream is for their children, not ours; that the DREAM Act is somehow a gift for the undeserved… a handout to a special class.
Clearly, they’re right. Because all you need to “benefit” from the Act is to be a child of immigrants, brought to the United States as a minor, educated in our schools… Have the desire, and the grades to go on to a community college… Your parents need to have paid their taxes for years with no expectation of ever receiving any benefits in return… And you need to make a commitment to begin the sometimes decades-long naturalization process.
How “undeserving” can these students be?
In all seriousness, the only thing the DREAM Act attempts to do is ensure that children named Gomez and Santiago and Sanchez are treated the same as anyone else who lives in the State of Maryland.
And Governor O’Malley gets this, and he put his political capital to work to protect the belief that there’s no such thing as a spare Marylander. It was a politically risky move for Governor O’Malley and I offered to be the public face of the effort. I can’t tell you how proud I was to open the paper the morning after I said I’d take on this issue to see a front page headline that Governor O’Malley would lead the effort and push the DREAM Act through the legislature. That’s political courage. That’s moral leadership.
Immigrants and their children – our parents and our children – have played a special and important role throughout America’s great history. European, Asian, African, Central and South American… All immigrants and their children built this nation into the shining beacon on the hill that it remains today.
Immigrants and their children who live and are raised in here should all be treated the same. It should make no difference whether they arrived in North America in 1992 or 1492.
These are our children. They came here as children because their parents had higher hopes for their future. They’ve fought for our country. In fact, of the roughly 3,400 Americans to earn a medal of honor, 450 were born somewhere else and 38 are Hispanic.
Make no mistake, this is an emotional issue in Maryland and across the country – perhaps most misguidedly emotional for those who are the least impacted. But it’s emotional for me. It’s emotional for me because I am the grandchild of immigrants and the son of what some call with disdain an anchor baby: An anchor baby who was the first ever in our family to go to college; an anchor baby who put all three of his sons through college and through grad school. It’s emotional to me because there is nothing fundamentally less American than punishing children for the actions of their parents.
It’s emotional to me because every day when I go to work in Annapolis I pass by a statue of Thurgood Marshall.
Last summer I took my kids to work with me and when we passed the statue and my 5-year-old son asked, “Daddy, who is that?” I answered with almost unbearable pride: “He’s the man who made certain that all children are treated the same no matter where they are from or who their parents are.”
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to look back and reflect on our past accomplishments. But it’s also a moment to refocus and look ahead. To inspire future leaders and set grand goals.
I’m proud that our state took up this cause. I’m proud that our Governor stood tall in support.
And I am optimistic that one day soon Congress will pass a bill and give President Obama the opportunity to stand with school-aged Americans, born there but raise here and sign the American DREAM Act.
I am so incredibly thankful to join you in that celebration.