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League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Unity Luncheon

Remarks as prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Houston, Texas
Thursday, June 27, 2002

Good afternoon.

Les agradezco muchísimo esta invitación que me han hecho para venir a Houston a reunirme con ustedes, los miembros de LULAC, la organización Hispana más grande y más antigüa del país.

Roman, thank you very much for your generous introduction.

And thank you to Rick Dovalina and Brent Wilkes. You are both doing tremendous work for the Hispanic people of this country. Thank you both.

I am honored to be sharing the stage with my good friend, Al Gonzales. As Counsel to the President, Al is a very important part of the team that makes this Administration successful during a very difficult time.

I am also very pleased that HUD Southwest Regional Director Cynthia Leon has joined us here. Cynthia is doing a great job for our team at HUD.

The Unity Luncheon is a wonderful tradition, and I am so proud that you have asked me to speak at this particular gathering. So much of our work in the Bush Administration depends upon the partnerships we are celebrating today: the strong relationships between the federal government, the private sector, and the grassroots community.

The Hispanic people have discovered the power of these partnerships, and cultivating them has yielded tremendous rewards. By providing services that we might not otherwise have access to in areas ranging from housing, to health care, to education, these partnerships are profoundly changing our communities. They will continue to be key to our success in lifting up our families and creating new opportunities for all.

Not only do we celebrate our unity with our partners today, we also celebrate the unity of spirit that brings us together as Hispanics in this country. Given the diversity within our community, and the fact that we are the largest and fastest growing minority in the country, this unity is very important. After all, the Hispanic population of the U.S. comes close to rivaling the entire population of Spain.

The reality is that Hispanics represent dozens of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. We are Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Mexicans, Cubans, and so on. Some Hispanics have lived in this country for only a few months or years. Others are fifth-generation Americans who never learned to speak the Spanish language.

So it is not the term "Hispanic" that unites us, but rather the shared values and culture that bring us together as Americans.

As Hispanics, we share the same values. But more importantly, we share the same issues.

I commend LULAC for its focus on the issues. I read "The LULAC Challenge" you released earlier this week, and was very pleased to see that housing is among your top concerns. Obviously, we agree on this point. "The LULAC Challenge" follows on the heels of "America's Homeownership Challenge" just announced by President Bush. The President's Homeownership Challenge is focused on empowering people to choose their own path in life. And I believe that the issues on which LULAC is focused are equally rooted in the empowerment of people.

By tradition, we take great pride in being self-reliant. We want a strong federal government that stands at the side of those who need a helping hand. But we have never turned to the government to do for us what we can do for ourselves. This has been a source of tremendous strength for our community, and this must not change.

I am proud to serve a President who shares our passion for family, freedom, opportunity, and country. President Bush feels strongly about the concerns that are closest to Hispanic people. He has a deep appreciation for our contributions to American society.

The President is committed to improving our quality of life. And his Administration is focused on helping Hispanic families have every opportunity to work and succeed and to rise in this great land.

To ensure that our concerns are addressed, the President has surrounded himself with Hispanics in his Administration, many of us in the most senior leadership positions. It is a tremendous honor to be speaking to you as the first Hispanic immigrant and Cuban-American ever appointed to serve in the President's Cabinet.

I serve alongside White House Counsel Al Gonzales; Hector Barreto, head of the Small Business Administration; U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin; Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez; and Cari Dominguez, Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Many others fill key roles in the White House. Never has a U.S. President surrounded himself with as many Hispanics as President Bush has. At HUD, I have tapped Frank Jimenez as my Chief of Staff, and Anna Maria Farias serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Initiatives. Both are with me here today.

We want to increase our representation throughout the federal workforce. For those who may choose a career in public service, I urge you to consider service in the federal government.

At this moment, more than 39 percent of our employees at HUD - the agency I serve - are eligible to retire. The implications are enormous. Many federal agencies have been successful over the past decade in reaching out to the African-American community, to recruit new talent and instill in young people the value and importance of a career in civil service. At the direction of the President, we are now focusing that same attention on Hispanics.

I can say with pride that HUD has the best minority hiring record of all of the Cabinet-level departments. But I do not hold us out as the benchmark; even though our record is good, and continues to get better, it is far from good enough. We will work harder to improve the representation of Hispanics in the federal workforce.

I mentioned some of the President's influential appointments. There is a troubling pattern I want to discuss with you that Al Gonzales also touched on.

President Bush has made a number of Hispanic appointments to the Federal Courts - people of the highest integrity, with surnames like Estrada and Martinez, who were found qualified by the American Bar Association.

Yet, these appointments are being blocked for ideological reasons by the leadership in the U.S. Senate. The Administration applauds the support of LULAC in calling on the U.S. Senate to confirm all Hispanic judges awaiting confirmation.

The importance of our federal judges was brought home to me yesterday by the offensive decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. I came to this country in part because this is a land where I would be free to practice my faith. This decision - made by just two federal judges - defies America's history as a nation of faith. I am confident that it will not stand.

Protecting the freedom we cherish as Americans is more important now than ever. There are terrorists who resent us because of our freedoms. They have attacked before, and would like nothing better than to succeed again. So President Bush is taking every action available to him to protect the American people. The military continues to track down terrorists abroad, while the focus here is on securing the homeland.

Last week, the President delivered to Congress his plan to create a Department of Homeland Security.

We think this is the best way to help the government deal with the new threats of the 21st century. It will take some compromising in Congress to turn it into law. But as long as everyone focuses on doing what is right for the people and keeps the politics out of it, Congress should be able to heed the President's call and pass this legislation before the end of the year.

As this Administration looks at the world, President Bush's leadership has focused unprecedented attention on our neighborhood, Latin America, our hemisphere.

The concerns of Latin America are the concerns of this Administration. The economic problems in Argentina, terrorism in Colombia, the natural disasters that have caused so much destruction in El Salvador, the instability in Venezuela, the oppression of the Castro regime in Cuba - these are important to us. Where we have been able to offer assistance, or take a strong stand on behalf of democracy, we have been proud to do so.

The United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico. More than just a shared border unites us; we are united in friendship and common purpose. President Bush and President Fox have a strong and warm friendship.

Our nations will continue to work together in the common purpose of modernizing our border, dealing with immigration issues, and creating jobs and prosperity by encouraging additional trade between our countries and all the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Even in my Department, I have had great opportunities to work with our neighbors. I traveled to El Salvador after the earthquakes, visited Nicaragua for the inauguration of President Bolaños, and have enjoyed meeting many of the region's ambassadors.

The President's domestic agenda is also focused on creating prosperity. We are empowering citizens to build opportunity and wealth for themselves in ways that will benefit many Hispanic families.

A top priority of the Bush Administration is to help more families achieve the American Dream of homeownership. We have been celebrating June as National Homeownership Month because we want more Americans to know for themselves the power of homeownership to transform lives and strengthen communities.

Homeownership empowers families by providing stability and security. It creates stakeholders who care what happens in their neighborhoods. It transforms the entire nation, too, through the economic growth that homeownership and a strong housing market generate.

A nation of homeowners is a source of incredible strength, and this Administration is committed to helping more Hispanic families own a home of their own.

Not enough of us do. While a record number of Americans are homeowners today, Hispanics do not own homes at anywhere near the same rate as others.

Last week, I traveled with the President to Atlanta, where he announced the "Homeownership Challenge" I mentioned earlier. This is a bold and unprecedented public/private commitment to knock down the barriers to minority homeownership and help more families become homeowners.

The President is challenging government, the private sector, and not-for-profits to come together as partners and add another 5.5 million minority families to the ranks of American homeowners before the end of this decade.

Because the federal government cannot accomplish this alone, the President has crafted a two-pronged response: a new commitment by the private sector to boost homeownership, and a series of concrete steps the federal government will take to make homeownership an affordable option for more families.

President Bush is calling on the real estate, mortgage finance, and homebuilding industries to dramatically increase their efforts to reduce the barriers to homeownership.

The other component of the Homeownership Challenge is the response of the federal government. The specific homeownership proposals the President outlined last week are built on the idea that government serves best when government helps an individual to help themselves.

The single greatest barrier to first-time homebuyers is a high down payment. In response, we are urging Congress to fully fund the American Dream Downpayment Fund. The Fund will help 200,000 low-income families - many of them Hispanic - lift themselves into homeownership over the next four years.

The lack of information about homeownership opportunities is another barrier that prevents too many potential buyers from owning a home. This is especially true for immigrant families. Immigrants are often unfamiliar with America's homebuying process and the opportunity for long-term financing. And many, of course, face the additional hurdle of a language barrier.

Studies show that Hispanics who understand the homebuying process are more likely to buy a home they are happy with and less likely to be taken in by predatory lenders. So we are significantly boosting the budget for housing education.

After the President's announcement last week, I visited the City of Tucson and toured a new development that will soon be home to 65 families. Chicanos por la Causa is a HUD-certified housing counseling center that helps to educate potential homebuyers about homeownership and credit. Chicanos por la Causa is playing an important role in creating proud homebuyers.

The homebuying process itself is cloaked in confusion and uncertainty for far too many buyers.

Just yesterday, I unveiled HUD's Homeowner's Bill of Rights and announced the specific steps we are taking to make buying a home less complicated and less expansive. Consumers need to know up front exactly how much their home loan is going to cost and how much money they need to bring to the closing table. That is why it is so important that we reform the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, or RESPA.

I was in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this week, holding a town hall meeting to talk about the President's homeownership initiatives. A 16-year-old girl named Analaura told me a heartbreaking story.

Analaura's family had moved from Mexico to Charlotte 12 years ago. Her father found work doing lawn care. Her mother worked in a factory. Her parents saved everything they could for the down payment. This was supposed to be their American Dream.

She told me her parents signed the loan papers, but did not realize that the actual terms of the loan were not the terms they thought they had agreed upon. They ended up with an $118,000 mortgage on an $82,000 house, an interest rate of 12 percent, and a monthly payment of nearly $1,100.

These are the kinds of practices I am determined to end in order to help America's most vulnerable.

By reforming the rules governing the purchase and financing of a home, we will create new opportunities for first-time homebuyers, keep the American dream of homeownership alive for more families, and inspire greater public confidence in the mortgage lending industry.

The President and I are committed to helping low-income families cross the bridge from subsidized housing into homeownership.

We began allowing Section 8 voucher holders to use their vouchers to cover mortgage payments last year. President Bush wants to expand the program's reach by letting families put up to a year's worth of their rental vouchers toward a home down payment.

It is hard to inspire homeownership in a community where affordable homes are simply not available for sale. The President has proposed a Single-Family Affordable Housing Tax Credit, to encourage the development of 200,000 affordable homes in neighborhoods where housing is scarce.

LULAC members appreciate the importance of homeownership. Not only have you made housing a top priority in "The LULAC Challenge," but your members are working actively in America's communities to provide homes for those who need them. LULAC chapters in nine states are helping to meet the housing needs of low- and moderate-income families. I appreciate your commitment to affordable housing, and the more than 2,000 housing units you make available throughout the country.

HUD is making an unprecedented effort to inform the Hispanic community about our programs and the many housing opportunities available to you. We have Spanish-language brochures that describe the help the federal government can provide. A toll-free telephone hotline provides Spanish-language operators. And the HUD web site at www.hud.gov offers an entire library of information - much of it in Spanish.

I mentioned the way in which homeownership creates stakeholders who care about their communities. This is especially important for Hispanics in this country. Whether we are homeowners or renters, we need to become involved in our communities.

We need to register to vote, and then vote for candidates committed to causes we believe in.

We need to become active in our schools, to do everything we can do as parents to improve the education of our children and help stem the Hispanic dropout rate.

We need to get to know our neighbors. A neighbor who knows they have someone close by who they can turn to in a crisis can sleep more soundly than one who does not. And this is especially true of our elderly neighbors.

We need to seek out volunteer opportunities as President Bush has challenged us to do. There is someone out there who needs your special talents.

We need to do these things because as Hispanics, we have a responsibility to this country. As the Hispanic population continues to grow, it is not just about what we take, but also about what we give back to society. We have made America better through the strength of our family relationships, the depth of our faith, and our industriousness. Every new Hispanic immigrant enriches this nation a little bit more.

Now let us strengthen America even further by giving back to a nation that has given us so much in return.

Maybe what we celebrate most when we celebrate Hispanic unity, is the unity of opportunity that being an American affords every one of us. In this land of unparalleled freedom and unlimited opportunity, everything is possible.

Thank you.

Content Archived: March 16, 2010

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