Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Delivers Keynote Address at National Immigration Integration Conference

December 14, 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Thank you. I hope you appreciate Javier’s power. He just says hopefully we’ll hear from the mayor soon and bang – that’s all it takes. 

[Laughter]

That is impressive. Well, good morning, everyone.

Audience: Good morning.

Mayor: Come on – this is a conference of advocates and change-makers. Good morning, everyone. 

Audience: Good morning!

Mayor: There we go.

It is such an honor to be with you here today. This conference is about, obviously, one of the most essential issues facing this nation. And you are on the cutting edge of the changes we need, so I want to thank you from the outset for the work you do.

I know at this moment in history, with some of the debate raging, it sometimes must feel a bit thankless doing the work you do, but I want to say thank you, because it’s crucially important. It’s timely. The fact that it comes with a certain amount of strain and struggle is, bluntly, natural in the process of making social change, and it may not always feel good, but you are absolutely on the right side of history. I want to thank you for that commitment. 

And I want to thank you for choosing New York City for your conference, because you uplift us with your presence. So thank you very, very much for being here with us. 

[Applause]

And I get to welcome you formally on behalf of almost eight-and-a-half million New Yorkers – and you are very welcome for a number of reasons. We share your values, we appreciate your work, but also, what you’re working on is the essence of what made this city great. 

And I think it is a very interesting reality in the debate that surges on the question of immigration that there’s no question, at this point in our history, New York City has a number of strengths, and if you look at New York City over its entire history, it’s always been a vibrant and successful place. Definitely we had some good times and some bad times, but if you take the whole sweep of history, New York City has worked. It has been a leader in the country and in the world. It’s been vibrant, it’s been creative, it’s been entrepreneurial. 

Now at the same exact time, throughout its entire history, it has fundamentally been a city of immigrants. There’s never been a time when we weren’t a city of immigrants, when our character wasn’t shaped by the next generation of immigrants. So if we are in so many ways the leading city of our nation, and if we have been in so many ways successful and dynamic, doesn’t it make sense to put two and two together and say that is because – in so many ways, that is because of our immigrant tradition, because we were the open city for all? 

Because of immigrants, we became great – it’s as simple as that.

And we need to tell that story and we need to let people know that that is equally true in so many ways about our nation’s past, and it certainly is true about our nation’s future. 

And in a sense, I would argue, there’s many, many issues to be discussed when we talk about immigration, including the most fundamental moral issues, but I’m offering also a practical thought. If so much of our success has been based on immigration, if so much of our rejuvenation has been based on immigration, it’s time to remind people of all the goodness, of all the progress that has come, generation after generation, through the process of immigration. And we intend to tell that story here in this city and show, we hope, in our own way, that we can be not only a continuing beacon for immigrants from all over the world, but an example of the success that comes with a society that welcomes immigrants. 

I want to just take a quick moment to thank someone who’s here among us, and she has done extraordinary work. I’m going to talk about our IDNYC effort later on, which we’re very, very proud of, but the woman who’s led so many of our groundbreaking efforts to embrace our immigrants, to embrace all immigrants in this city, including the half-million of our fellow New Yorkers who happen to be undocumented, the woman who’s led that effort and been so entirely successful over the last two years is here with us – our Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Nisha Agarwal. Let’s give her a big thanks.

[Cheers]

[Applause]

That is what we call – Nisha, that is your morning affirmation. 

[Laughter]

Now, everyone in this – everyone in this room – and there’s so many people in this room in common cause – everyone knows that the topic of immigration is being talked about all over this country, at kitchen tables, at water coolers at work. Everywhere people gather, this is on people’s minds. And the conversation right now is very intense, and often very emotional. And it includes discussion of some very forward-looking and thoughtful actions, such as President Obama’s executive action, which we fully support and believe in, but also the challenges and the complexities of the Syrian refugee crisis. And at the same time, despite the challenges and complexities, it is a humanitarian crisis, and we need to treat it as such – and I’ll speak about that in a moment. And, of course, the pronouncements of some of those running for president – all of these inputs, all of these pieces are part of the discussion right now. 

And what we’re seeing is, as is so often true in history, but it’s pretty sharp right now, some very reasoned thinking, some very hopeful thinking, but also mixed with some very negative and divisive and derogatory thinking and words. And it’s our challenge to take that head-on. It’s our challenge to recognize that we can’t will that away – we have to argue our way through it. We have to convince people all over this country that a path of division will not serve us – it’s never served us in our history, and it doesn’t reflect our values – and that there is a positive way forward. 

Now, I mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Syria. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our generation – the numbers are staggering. And we have seen, time and time again, men and women and children fleeing acts of terror and fleeing the destruction of their homeland. Imagine what it must feel like, right now, a peaceful family in Syria seeing their entire world around them engulfed in war and division and hatred and ethnic strife and religious strife – the literal disintegration of a society before our eyes. 

We’ve seen the images, we’ve seen what’s happened to the refugees. And in the face of that, and in the – in, I would say, opposition to what we have known in our American culture, our appreciation for our role in the world as a positive beacon, our understanding that we have so often opened our door to people in need – in the face of that moment, unfortunately, we hear many, many voices saying shut the door, turn away from our values, leave people to their own devices, leave families, leave children in harm’s way. That’s what these voices have said. One leading candidate for president literally said we shouldn’t even take in children who are the victims of that humanitarian crisis. Now, I think we can safely say that a five-year-old child is not going to participate in a terrorist act. A five-year-old child that’s the victim of a humanitarian crisis – all they know is that they are dealing with an unfathomable challenge. How can we, as Americans, turn our back on that child? What does that have – where is there any connection to our values and our history in that? 

And therefore, I say, very simply, that the voices that say we should turn people away are not consistent with our American values. In fact, these are unpatriotic voices, because they don’t reflect who we are.

[Applause]

In this nation – and this has been our belief, and we all know that we’ve struggled over centuries to be as good as our founding beliefs and to be consistent with those beliefs – but what’s clear is our values are clear. We don’t build walls here. We don’t create lists on the basis of ethnicity. We don’t make refugees take religious tests. It goes against everything in our founding documents. It goes against everything that we believe in. And this one’s not even close – because if you look at how this nation was founded and the overt understanding that – this is now pushing 250 years ago – the overt and explicit understanding there would not be a state religion, there would not be a test for whether someone could become president of the United States based on their religion – there would be respect for each and every religion. In fact, if you remember our original colonies, each of them had their own religious character, and the agreement between them was that all religions would be respected – none would be favored over the other. People who did not choose to have a religious faith would be equally respected. That’s who we are. 

How can you square that with serious leaders – when I say serious, I mean meaningful leaders, not that I think their thoughts are always serious – but people who have serious titles, at least, literally saying there should be a test – a religious test – of whether someone could enter this country, for the first time in our history, suggesting that we violate our constitution and segregate people by religion when we consider who could be here? That is unfathomably far from where we have begun. And I would daresay that a lot of folks who might’ve called themselves traditionalists once upon a time would never in a million years have thought of saying out loud there should be a religious test related to immigration, because even folks that I wouldn’t have agreed with in the past at least understood our constitution well enough to know that that just doesn’t fit here in America. So we have to fight that fight now in our generation.

I believe fundamentally that most Americans get it – and we all have to continue to talk to the people of this country. Most Americans get it. Most Americans are aware of the fact that they, too, not long ago, came from an immigrant family that walked the same path. Most people are aware of the profound tradition of tolerance and understanding that this nation is based on. Sometimes we have to remind people of those facts – there’s no doubt about it. But I think most people can understand the danger of starting to create these divisions and these clear lines that move us away from our values. 

And it’s very important to say – and I’ve said this publicly – it’s very important to say that this kind of divisive talk literally plays into the hands of our enemies – literally. It’s quite clear that ISIS and other groups want to see division in this country and they want the imagery of the majority in this nation turning against our Muslim population. And it is therefore all the more important that we embrace our Muslim population at this very moment, and we show this is a country for all.

[Applause]

So my argument is simple – what’s being said about excluding people – and particularly about excluding people along religious lines – one, in violation of our values; two, plays into the hands of our enemies. 

Let me give you another example – history is often our guide. And sometimes people are jolted into recognition by reminding them that there was a previous generation that made choices, that faced similar questions, and made the wrong choice, and the consequences were quite dire. 

So if anyone in the coming days talks to you about public polling and what people are saying at this moment, very early in this discussion, and says, well, there’s a lot of Americans who would like to keep people out who are refugees or like to have some kind of religious test, I would say, first of all, this discussion has just begun. But I would say, second of all, when people start to hear the full history, I think they’ll change their minds very rapidly. 

Here’s an example – and it’s a very painful analogy. 1938 – Fortune magazine, just starting down the road of public-opinion surveying – a fairly new approach back then in 1938 – but they took it upon themselves to do a national public opinion poll. And they surveyed the American people on a question that was quite sharp at that moment – should the United States accept large numbers of refugees, Jewish refugees, fleeing Nazi persecution and violence? 1938 – literally almost at the very end of the time at which people could be saved. So the American people were asked, should we save our Jewish brothers and sisters? Two-thirds said no. Two-thirds said no. And you know the rest of the story. America did not open its doors. Had we opened our doors in 1938, tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of people would’ve lived who died otherwise in the Holocaust. It’s as simple as that. It’s a variation on what we’re going through today, but it’s a stark and clear analogy. 

We must help our people to understand that we can’t make choices like that again today. We can’t allow people to perish, and we can’t send a message to the world of exclusion that goes against – excuse me – all of our values. 

Now, it is also important to remember, America has benefited for a long time from being a beacon of hope, from being an example of something different and better in the world – from whenever we live up to our democratic values, it registers around the world. When we show we’re a multicultural, open society, it registers deeply. It is felt around the world. It is inspirational to people around the world. And when we act against those values, there’s a counter-reality. We undermine our position in the world. 

President Obama has, to his great credit – he’s understood fully the importance of America constantly renewing our position in the world. He understands that on every level how we can help to foster better democratic traditions and respect for human rights, how we can show an example that has a positive impact as we deal with the challenge of terror. The president has understood the power of what’s good about America being portrayed to the world, and he’s understood fully the respect and inclusion that we have to show for all who are part of our society, including between 11 and 12 million folks who happen to be undocumented. The executive action – the executive was a profoundly important, and smart, and timely thing to do. It doesn’t shock any of us that so many voices were raised against it. It doesn’t shock any of us that there’s been challenges in the court system. But the president took the actions he could take. I believe fundamentally he will be vindicated in the end. I believe the executive action will be implemented, and we will all be a part of that, and the day when that begins will be a very good day for this country.

[Applause]

And I believe the executive action, like so many of the actions that are being taken by localities around the country, are creating – all of these things are creating the real, and practical, and tangible pathway to comprehensive immigration reform. We know what’s stuck and broken in Washington, but what’s happening now is people are acting – everyone in this room is acting, localities are acting, states are acting, the White House is acting, and it’s creating a new reality. It is bubbling up form the grassroots. And I always say, profound social change comes from the grassroots, it’s not top-down, it must be bottom-up. And in terms of the immigration movement, it is happening more and more from the grassroots, up. And that is why it will ultimately succeed. 

But we have to understand a lot of the challenge, a lot of the frustration that people feel as this debate ensues – we understand there’s a lot of people all around the country who look at the question of immigration and they put it through the prism of their own lives and their own economic struggles. And that is something that has to be understood and respected, because, for so many people in this country, making ends meet has become increasingly difficult. For so many people who thought they were solidly in the middle class, they have found themselves economically actually falling backwards over the last quarter-century. For some many people, their economic frustrations have become so intense that they’re looking for someone to blame, they’re looking for something that explains how their situation could have gotten the way it is despite their hard work, despite playing by the rules. And they feel pain at what their families have gone through, and they need to find an explanation, and, bluntly, they need to find the cause, and the reason, and the person to point their finger at. And, sadly, for some – at they’ve been stoked into this view by a lot of negative voices – they point their finger at immigrants. They think immigrants have caused their own economic decline. They’re angry, they’re frustrated for perfectly legitimate reasons, and, so, they turn that anger and frustration towards the folks that they think may have undermined their economic position.

But here’s the truth – and the truth that we have to incessantly and clearly explain – immigrants are not the problem when it comes to the decline of the middle class in America. Immigrants are not the problem – income inequality is the problem in this country. 

[Applause]

Over the last 20 and 30 years, we have seen a concentration of wealth and power such as we’ve never seen before, and that’s what has held back the middle class. We’ve seen government policies that used to protect the middle class and protect working people diminished. The cause and effect is not hard to trace here. People have been working hard and falling backwards, and when yo look at the choices made, particularly in Washington since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, it’s not surprising. The wealthy have been taxed less and less. The laws that protected working people have been diminished. So many of the efforts that helped to make sure that people had decent wages and benefits have been undercut. And so, there is a – there are millions and millions of people who are economically frustrated, who turn that frustration toward immigrants when, in fact, they should turn that frustration towards the people who actually created this crisis – towards the wealthy and powerful who have rigged the system in their favor. It’s as simple as that.

[Applause]

That is going to be part of the discussion we have to have. And I would daresay in the year 2015, the discussion of income inequality in this country has leaped forward. It is a better, stronger discussion than we’ve had in many, many years. And you can see it in the national polling – the people of this country are very intensely focused on the question of income inequality. They want to see changes. They want to see fair taxation of the wealthy, and progressive taxation of the wealthy. They want to see more protection for wages and benefits, and actions that will increase wages and benefits. More and more people are getting it – we’ve got to link that positively to the immigration discussion and reset that discussion. And the executive action gives us a prism to do that, because what the president’s saying is, here’s almost 5 million people who are our neighbors, who are part of us, and they have family members, and they all need a chance to live out the American dream. And we can do that through the executive action. And we can acknowledge the positive role they play in our economy, because they have helped to make us stronger. 

We know it in this city. This is a very powerful figure – in this city, we have 1.9 [sic] working immigrants in this city. 1.9 [sic] people who are contributing intensely to our economy. They make up 43 percent of our workforce in a city that, right now, is economically stronger than ever. Immigrants contribute $257 billion dollars to our city economy, nearly a third of the entire economy of this city. And we depend on our immigrant brothers and sisters in so many ways, and we want to live up to our understanding and our appreciation for what immigrants mean to this city by continuing to act and continuing to work with other cities for change. That’s why we helped to start Cities United for Immigration Action – because we knew – it wasn’t just here – we knew all over the country, cities were experiencing the same positive realities we are with our immigrant communities, but the change wasn’t happening in Washington, so cities had to lead the way and had to show that not only did we have the ability to make tangible change on the ground, but we were going to unite in common cause to make our voices heard in Washington.

Now, we are among 84 cities and counties who have asked the Supreme Court to allow President Obama’s executive action to go forward.

[Applause]

And we’re going to keep building to coalition for the long haul, and we need your help in doing it.

Let me just say that it’s also so important to talk about the humanity, the human reality, the real stories that make up the immigration experience, because often times when we put a face, and a name, and a history to a story, we start to open people’s eyes. The immigrant story is the American story, we all know it. Even the most vociferous critics of immigration reform can’t deny that we are a nation of immigrants. We feel that here in a particularly tangible way, because if you go around today, as you’re talking to New Yorkers in the room, and anywhere you go, ask them which generations they are. Are they the – did they come here themselves from another country? Are they the first generation born here? The second generation? And people are quite clear and quite proud of their immigrant roots – it’s tangible and it’s immediate to them. So, every one of us has our own stories. Every one of us has the examples we hold up.

Let me give you one of my favorite examples, and it’s – the story goes back almost 100 years. A young woman named Anna Briganti. She came to New York City in 1903 from a very small town in southern Italy. She came here and found in New York City possibilities that never could have existed in the very poor and barren part of southern Italy that she came from. She saw an opportunity for a better life, a chance to give her family great security and great possibility for the future, and she seized those opportunities. And she did something that back then, I think, was probably pretty unusual. With her sister and her mother, they opened their own business – so, it was an immigrant, woman-owned business over 100 years ago here in New York City – and interestingly, I think they were proto-feminists, because they named it after themselves. 

They – they – it was an embroidery business, and then later became a dress making business, and they called it the Misses – M-I-S-S-E-S – the Misses Briganti. And the business thrived, and they were on the way to the middle class and the American dream.

Perhaps you have guessed the punchline to the story – Anna Briganti was my grandmother, and I owe her everything that I’ve been able to experience. I owe her the fact that my family lives our own American dream today.

When I talk about immigration, I’m thinking about my grandmother Anna. I’m thinking about my grandfather Giovanni. It’s not abstract. It’s real people who made all things possible for us. And that we constantly have to communicate, because that is every American’s story, in one form or another.

Now, let me tell you a story of today. Let me take you back a hundred years – a hundred years forward now, to today. New York City proudly opened its doors to a family fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. And only a handful of families so far have resettled here in New York City, but it’s important to understand their story as examples of what people are experiencing today.

The war is Syria drove Abdullah Ferdous and his family from their home. And they didn’t know what would lie ahead, and they obviously had tremendous fear for their futures. They sought refuge in the United States. They sought refuge here in New York City, and they ended up living in a community in Brooklyn – a wonderful community called Bay Ridge. And you’re going to see some images of this family right now.

Today, thanks to his temporary protected status, Mr. Ferdous is able to provide for his family. He’s able to contribute to our community. He works as an electrician. He has a home, and his family has a home where they feel safe. They are free to practice their religion. Their six-year-old daughter is able to thrive in her new environment, but she also needs help – because imagine what that six-year-old daughter went through as her nation of birth was engulfed in war, and her whole world crumbled around her. So she is also receiving the mental health counseling she needs to heal from the trauma of the war she experienced as such a young age.

Today, the Ferdous family has a sense of peace. They have a sense that there’s real opportunity for them – that there’s hope, that there’s a future – something they didn’t have just a few years ago.

What a blessing for this nation, to be able to give this opportunity, this new start to this family. Isn’t that what we’re all about? Isn’t that what we believe in?

[Applause]

I’ve got just a little more I want to share with you. And as I said, we’re very proud in New York City – we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We could not have achieved everything we’ve done in this city if we weren’t diverse, if we weren’t a city of immigrants, if we weren’t vibrant and inclusive. Our diversity, our inclusiveness made us strong. We couldn’t have done it any other way, and we’re proud of that fact.

And so, in this administration, we are devoted to honoring that history; to recognizing who we are; to doubling down on our commitment to immigrants, and to a fair and just and inclusive society.

With the support of our City Council, and our exceptional Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, we’ve launched some very ambitious initiatives. One I imagine you all know about – as I mentioned before, IDNYC, the largest municipal ID program in the country. We’re very proud of it.

[Applause]

Now, I like to say that the – Nisha Agarwal is a person of great heart and great capacity, but the beginning of this program – we announced it on January 10th, I think it was, this year – Nisha was convinced that about a hundred thousand people would participate in year one. It was a brand new program; we thought it would have humble beginnings, based on how other things had gone around the country.

Well, Nisha was off by a little bit.

[Laughter]

In less than a year, more than 670,000 New Yorkers now have an IDNYC card.

[Applause]

Here’s one. And we are proud of the fact that these cards will continue – this is something we announced with the City Council – as of today, these – we’re announcing that these cards will continue to remain free in 2016 for all applicants.

[Applause]

There’s extraordinary cultural benefits that come with the cards – access to our cultural institutions, access to great services like Citi Bike. And what it means for folks who happen to be undocumented – the card is for anyone and everyone, but if you happen to be undocumented, now you know, with IDNYC, you can sign a lease. You can get a bank account. You can sign in at your child’s school to visit the principal, or pick your child up from school. All these fundamental things are made possible.

So, we know IDNYC has made a difference, and we want to go farther. And I’m proud to announce another new initiative – working very closely with the City Council, the launch today of ActionNYC.

It’s a five-borough initiative created to provide free, high-quality legal services to any immigrant New Yorker who needs it to deal with their immigration challenges.

[Applause]

We’re taking $7.9 million dollars in existing resources to bring ActionNYC to life. We have groups ready to take advantage of these resources – get legal services to immigrants who need it.

We know that when executive action fully takes effect, a huge number of New Yorkers will benefit. But we also know they need the legal assistance to fully benefit from these new opportunities. We know they’re dealing with challenges right now. We’re partnering with the City University of New York and with community-based organizations to make sure that people get the help they need, and that they are not ensnared in the fraud that, unfortunately, some would perpetrate upon them, because they see our immigrants as vulnerable. We want legal services to be provided the right way, so people can help – get the help they deserve.

This is the largest municipal investment in the nation in preparation for the success of President Obama’s executive action. We are very, very proud of it.

[Applause]

So, I will conclude by saying we will remain faithful to who we are in the city. And I think ultimately, this nation will remain faithful to who are – will understand that a city of immigrants, a nation of immigrants needs to embrace that – that history, those values, and constantly rejuvenate them. That is what makes us strong. That is what makes us a moral voice in the world, and we have to ensure that will continue for years, and, in fact, for generations to come.

And in the spirit of this gathering, I’m going to take one more minute to say something brief en español.

[Laughter]

[Mayor de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

Together, we will achieve these changes. I want to thank you for all you do, and I look forward to many victories ahead, brothers and sisters.

[Applause]

Thank you.

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