Ellis Island stands as one of the greatest symbols of the promise of America. Millions traveled through this gateway to make better lives for themselves and their children. They came from different backgrounds... they spoke different languages... they looked different... they traveled to different destinations throughout the country... but what united them was the belief in America and the fundamental principles of our democracy.
There could not be a more fitting place to end the New York City Conference on Immigration -- the first conference of its kind in history -- than here on Ellis Island.
Since it first opened its doors in 1892, Ellis Island has been our country's most famous port of entry. Many of our ancestors came through Ellis Island in search of a better life for themselves and their children. In fact, according to the Statue of Liberty Foundation 40% of all Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island.
America has always been a land of resources -- economic and most important human. These immigrants may not have had much in the way of money or material resources but they brought with them the greatest resource of all -- the energy, enthusiasm and drive to succeed.
Our country would not be the richest, most successful nation if it were not for immigrants. From the inception of this country, the very process of immigration is what has come to define us as a nation.
As Mayor of New York City, I am certainly aware of the tremendous resources that immigrants bring to the country. Ellis Island may now be a museum, but if you go to Kennedy Airport you'll see new immigrants who share the same emotions as the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.
New York City is the most diverse city in the world with more than 200 languages and variations of languages spoken here. In every borough, in nearly every neighborhood of New York City, dynamic immigrant communities are a tremendous resource for growth.
You need only look at the Russians in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn... Dominicans in Washington Heights, Manhattan... The new wave of Irish in the Bronx... Koreans in Willow Brook on Staten Island... to see that immigrant communities are vital to our city's success. Just take a walk down Union Street in Flushing, Queens or 8th Avenue in Brooklyn and you'll see what I mean.
Immigrants constantly infuse new life into our economy and culture. They come with the desire to succeed, they work hard and they challenge us to do better.
As any of these elected officials here today can attest, their cities and counties thrive precisely because of their vibrant immigrant communities. So this is not just a phenomenon in New York City but a national phenomenon.
Of the twelve million people who came through the doors of Ellis Island, more than eight million have moved to destinations throughout the nation to build their lives and make invaluable contributions to other cities and states throughout the U.S.
The children of these immigrants, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren have enriched our culture, strengthened our local economies, and have become some of the country's greatest local leaders. The Mayor of Los Angeles, Mayor Riordan, came from Queens and the Mayor of Philadelphia, Mayor Rendell, came from the Bronx.
These immigrants came from different countries throughout the world to settle in different states throughout the country.
The core of what makes America a great nation is that we are not connected by a common racial, ethnic, or religious background but by a common belief.
New Americans, therefore, can be as good for this country as Americans that have been here for generations -- sometimes even better -- precisely because of their adherence to the core beliefs of our democracy.
As President Lincoln said on the Fourth of July in 1858 speaking about our forefathers and the new immigrants of his day:
"We have besides these men -- descended by blood from our ancestors -- among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who come from Europe -- German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian. . If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none. . . But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are."
What Lincoln said nearly 140 years ago is still true today.
The test of being an American is not a test of one's ethnic background, religion, or race, it's a much more fundamental test -- a test of whether you truly believe that "all men are created equal."
It's a test of whether you are willing to live by that principle. If you pass that test and live by that principle whether you came here a day ago or are descendants from the Mayflower -- you are an American.
That is why the anti-immigrant legislation that was passed by Congress and signed by the President poses such a threat to the resources of our country. The very process of immigration has come to define us as a nation. It makes us who we are.
But as with any human process, problems do exist. Illegal immigration is a very real problem -- but it is one that lies outside of the responsibility of cities and states of this country.
Controlling our borders is a core function of the federal government and it is a problem that requires serious attention. The new welfare and immigration laws do not seriously address this problem.
Instead, it focuses attention on legal immigrants who pay taxes on an equal basis as citizens. The philosophical underpinnings of this legislation seems to be an attempt to make America an unattractive place for new people. I believe that kind of thinking undermines the character of our nation.
As a result of our advocacy, it appears as if the proposed Federal Budget Agreement will restore some benefits to some legal immigrants. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough. We need to make certain that Congress has a better, fuller understanding of immigration.
Immigration has revitalized and reinvigorated the country. Immigration is a resource that develops and protects so that we can remain strong and poised for future success.
To ensure that the rights of immigrants are protected, we will continue these efforts. Over the past two days, we've come together to discuss the issues and to focus national attention on the impact these new laws would have on our localities.
The resource guide that you have in your hands will provide a valuable tool on how all of us can continue our advocacy efforts on behalf of immigrants. All of the elected officials who have joined me during the course of this Conference will individually continue their advocacy as they go back to their localities.
But today we will join together, sign a statement of principles and send them to our Congressional leaders -- once again demonstrating the effectiveness and the leadership of the local governments of this nation.
Fifteen elected officials from 10 different states across the country came to New York City united by a common belief in the contributions and rights of immigrants.
You came to this Conference not from a position of weakness but of strength. The local governments of this country are dynamic, thriving and leading the way for the federal government.
The goal of the New York City Conference on Immigration was to discuss the practical impact that the new welfare and immigration laws would have on each of our states... to turn around the anti-immigration sentiment seen in the legislation in Washington... and ultimately to bring our country to a better, fuller understanding of immigration.
Although immigration affects the different cities and counties represented here in unique ways, the Conference participants share a common set of principles. We came here today to remind the people of America about the importance of immigration and I believe we have succeeded.
We have already accomplished a great deal in turning around the anti-immigration legislation. Almost all of the last several years has been spent talking about the negative impact of immigration.
We now have reached a turning point -- we now discuss the reality of immigration -- how it challenges Americans -- and makes America a better place.
It's the age old conflict in America between pessimism and optimism.
"Do you see people as problems or as opportunities?"
The very best times of our history suggest we should be optimistic and see people as opportunities.
The new people that come here not only make a better life for themselves but for us all.