T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

President Clinton Delivers Portland State University Commencement

Help Site Map Text Only

The Briefing Room

Office of the Press Secretary
(Portland, Oregon)

For Immediate Release June 13, 1998


Rose Garden Arena
Portland, Oregon
11:25 A.M. PDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen,, thank youfor the wonderful, warm welcome. President Bernstine, Provost Reardon,Senator Wyden, Representatives Blumenauer and Hooley, Treasurer Hill,General Myers, Superintendent Paulus. My good friend, your former Senator,Mark Hatfield, I'm delighted to see you here today, sir. Thank you.(Applause.)

To the faculty, especially the faculty honorees today; State Board ofHigher Education, the alumni; to the speakers, Theo Hall and Jane Rongerude-- I thought they did a marvelous job on behalf of the students.(Applause.)

Congratulations, Mr. Miller, and thank you for your contributions toPortland State. And let me say to all the members of the class of 1998, Ithank you for allowing me to come here today. I congratulate you on yourtremendous achievement.

I know the roads that you have traveled here have not all been easy.Some of you have worked full-time and cared for your families, even whileyou carried a full course load, and I congratulate you on what you've done.(Applause.)

What I want to say to you in the beginning is that you will see thatit was worth it. In the world in which we live, there is a higher premiumon education than ever before, not only because of what you know, butbecause of what you will be able to learn for the rest of your life. Theeducation and skills you take away from this campus will open doors for youforever. And I congratulate you on having the foresight, as well as thedetermination to see this through.

Portland State is a very interesting institution to me. First of all,we're the same age. (Laughter.) Portland State was born in 1946, out ofthe demand generated by the G.I. Bill at the end of World War II, one ofthe most far-sighted things that was ever done to explode opportunityacross America. The G.I. Bill helped to create the modern American middleclass and the prosperity we enjoyed. It also helped to create a number ofcommunity-based institutions of higher education, which more and more noware beginning to look in their student bodies the way they did over 50years ago.

More than half the students here are over 25. More than a few of youare considerably over 25. (Laughter and applause.) Still, you all lookquite young to me. (Laughter.) As was said earlier, I have worked hard,and our administration has, to open the doors of college to everyone whowould work for it, with the HOPE Scholarship and permanent tax credits forall higher education, and more Pell Grants and better student loans and theAmeriCorps program and work-study programs. We have to create a country inwhich everyone at any age believes that they have access to continue theireducation for a lifetime. (Applause.)

I want to focus on this institution again as an institution of thefuture. You know, a couple of years ago I came out here and we had aconference on the Pacific Rim and our relationship to the Asia Pacificregion that Portland State hosted. And I have to say that one of your mostdistinguished alumni was a particular friend of mine -- the lateCongressman Walter Capps from California, one of the finest people I everknew went to this school. (Applause.) And he was a person of the futurein the Congress; his wife succeeded him. And we were talking just lastevening before I came here about how grateful Congressman Capps always wasto Portland State for giving him the ability to go out into the world andmake a difference.

What I want to talk to all of you about, particularly the graduates,is the America of your future. We all know that at the edge of a newcentury and a new millennium, America is changing at breathtaking speed.We know that most of these changes have been good. We're grateful as anation to have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, the lowest crimerate in 25 years, the lowest welfare rolls in 29 years -- (applause) -- thefirst balanced budget and surplus in 29 years, the highest home ownershipin history. (Applause.) We feel gratitude. We know that none of us aloneis responsible for these things, but all of us together have come to termswith the challenges of the modern world and its opportunities and we'removing America in a good direction.

But this spring I have attempted to go out across the country andaddress graduates about the challenges this new era poses -- not onlybecause, even when there is a lot of good news out there we should neverforget that there are challenges, but perhaps even more importantly,because when times are good it imposes upon Americans a specialresponsibility to take our confidence and our prosperity and look to thelong-term challenges of the country, to address them in a forthright,constructive way so that our country will continue to grow and prosper.

This spring I have talked about three things. At the Naval Academy Italked about defending our nation against the new security threats of the21st century, including terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, andglobal environmental degradation. At MIT, not very long ago, I talkedabout the challenges of the information age and the importance of bringingthose opportunities to all Americans, bringing the Internet into everyclassroom, ensuring that every young student is computer-literate.(Applause.) Maybe I should have given that speech here. (Laughter.)

Today, I want to talk to you about what may be the mostimportant subject of all -- how we can strengthen the bonds of our nationalcommunity as we grow more racially and ethnically diverse. (Applause.)

It was just a year ago tomorrow that I launched a national initiativeon race, asking Americans to address the persistent problems and thelimitless possibilities of our diversity. This effort is especiallyimportant right now because, as we grow more diverse, our ability to dealwith the challenges will determine whether we can really bind ourselvestogether as one America. And even more importantly in the near-term, andover the next few years, perhaps, as well, our ability to exercise worldleadership for peace, for freedom, for prosperity in a world that is bothsmaller and more closely connected, and yet increasingly gripped withtense, often bloody conflicts rooted in racial, ethnic and religiousdivisions -- our ability to lead that kind of world to a better place restsin no small measure on our ability to be a better place here in the UnitedStates that can be a model for the world. (Applause.)

The driving force behind our increasing diversity is a new, large waveof immigration. It is changing the face of America. And while most of thechanges are good, they do present challenges which demand more both fromnew immigrants and from our citizens. Citizens share a responsibility towelcome new immigrants, to ensure that they strengthen our nation, to givethem their chance at the brass ring. (Applause.)

In turn, new immigrants have a responsibility to learn, to work, tocontribute to America. If both citizens and immigrants do their part, wewill grow ever stronger in the new global information economy.

More than any other nation on Earth, America has constantly drawnstrength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants. In eachgeneration, they have proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous,the most innovative, the most industrious of people. Bearing differentmemories, honoring different heritages, they have strengthened our economy,enriched our culture, renewed our promise of freedom and opportunity forall.

Of course, the path has not always run smooth. Some Americans havemet each group of newcomers with suspicion and violence and discrimination.So great was the hatred of Irish immigrants 150 years ago that they weregreeted with signs that read, "No Dogs Or Irish." So profound was the fearof Chinese in the 1880s that they were barred from entering the country.So deep was the distrust of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe atthe beginning of this century that they were forced to take literacy testsspecifically designed to keep them out of America.

Eventually, the guarantees of our Constitution and the better angelsof our nature prevailed over ignorance and insecurity, over prejudice andfear.

But now we are being tested again -- by a new wave of immigrationlarger than any in a century, far more diverse than any in our history.Each year, nearly a million people come legally to America. Today, nearlyone in ten people in America was born in another country; one in fiveschoolchildren are from immigrant families. Today, largely because ofimmigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New YorkCity. Within five years there will be no majority race in our largeststate, California. In a little more than 50 years there will be nomajority race in the United States. (Applause.) No other nation inhistory has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short atime.

What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, orthey can weaken and divide us. We must decide.

Let me state my view unequivocally. I believe new immigrants are goodfor America. They are revitalizing our cities. They are building our neweconomy. They are strengthening our ties to the global economy, just asearlier waves of immigrants settled the new frontier and powered theIndustrial Revolution. They are energizing our culture and broadening ourvision of the world. They are renewing our most basic values and remindingus all of what it truly means to be an American.

It means working hard, like a teenager from Vietnam who does hishomework as he watches the cash register at his family's grocery store. Itmeans making a better life for your children, like a father from Russia whoworks two jobs and still finds time to take his daughter to the publiclibrary to practice her reading. It means dreaming big dreams, passingthem on to your children. You have a lot of stories like that here at Portland State. Just thismorning I met one of your graduates -- or two, to be specific. MagoGilson, an immigrant from Mexico who make here without a high schooleducation. Twelve years later she is receiving her Masters Degree ineducation, on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a teacher.(Applause.)

She is joined in this graduating class by her son Eddi, who had dreamsof his own and worked full-time for seven years to put himself throughschool. Today he receives a Bachelor's Degree in business administration.(Applause.) And soon -- there's more. Soon her son, Oscar, whom I alsomet, will receive his own Master's Degree in education. I'd like to askthe Gilsons and their family members who are here to rise and berecognized. There she is. Give them a hand. (Applause.)

In the Gilson family and countless like them, we see the spirit thatbuilt America -- the drive to succeed, the commitment to family, toeducation, to work, the hope for a better life. In their stories we see areflection of our own parents' and grandparents' journey -- a powerfulreminder that our America is now so much a place as a promise; not aguarantee but a chance; not a particular race, but an embrace of our commonhumanity.

Now, some Americans don't see it that way. When they hear new accentsor see new faces, they feel unsettled. They worry that new immigrants comenot to work hard, but to live off our largesse. They're afraid the Americathey know and love is becoming a foreign land. This reaction may beunderstandable, but it's wrong. It's especially wrong when anxiety andfear give rise to policies and ballot propositions to exclude immigrantsfrom our civic life. (Applause.) I believe it's wrong to deny law-abidingimmigrants benefits available to everyone else; wrong to ignore them aspeople not worthy of being counted in the census. It's not only wrong,it's un-American. (Applause.)

Let me be clear: I also think it's wrong to condone illegalimmigration that flouts our laws, strains our tolerance, taxes ourresources. Even a nation of immigrants must have rules and conditions andlimits, and when they are disregarded, public support for immigrationerodes in ways that are destructive to those who are newly arrived andthose who are still waiting patiently to come. (Applause.)

We must remember, however, that the vast majority of immigrants arehere legally. In every measurable way, they give more to our society thanthey take. Consider this: On average, immigrants pay $1,800 more in taxesevery year than they cost our system in benefits. Immigrants are payinginto Social Security at record rates. Most of them are young, and theywill help to balance the budget when we baby boomers retire and put strainson it.

New immigrants also benefit the nation in ways not so easily measured,but very important. We should be honored that America, whether it's calledthe City on a Hill, or the Old Gold Mountain, or El Norte, is still seenaround the world as the land of new beginnings. We should all be proudthat people living in isolated villages in far corners of the worldactually recognize the Statue of Liberty. We should rejoice that childrenthe world over study our Declaration of Independence and embrace its creed.

My fellow Americans, we descendants of those who passed through theportals of Ellis Island must not lock the door behind us. Americans whoparents were denied the rights of citizenship simply because of the colorof their skin must not deny those rights to others because of the countryof their birth or the nature of their faith.

We should treat new immigrants as we would have wanted our owngrandparents to be treated. We should share our country with them, notshun them or shut them out. But mark my words, unless we handle this well,immigration of this sweep and scope could threaten the bonds of our union.

Around the world we see what can happen when people who live on thesame land put race and ethnicity before country and humanity. If Americais to remain the world's most diverse democracy, if immigration is tostrengthen America as it has throughout our history, then we must say toone another: whether your ancestors came here in slave ships or on theMayflower, whether they landed on Ellis Island or at Los AngelesInternational Airport, or have been here for thousands of years, if youbelieve in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, if youaccept the responsibilities as well as the rights embedded in them, thenyou are an American. (Applause.)

Only that belief can keep us one America in the 21st century. So Isay, as President, to all our immigrants, you are welcome here. But youmust honor laws, embrace our culture, learn our language, know our history;and when the time comes, you should become citizens. And I say to allAmericans, we have responsibilities as well to welcome our newestimmigrants, to vigorously enforce laws against discrimination. And I'mvery proud that our nation's top civil rights enforcer is Bill Lam Lee, theson of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Harlem.

We must protect immigrants' rights and ensure their access toeducation, health care, and housing and help them to become successful,productive citizens. When immigrants take responsibility to becomecitizens and have met all the requirements to do so, they should bepromptly evaluated and accepted.

The present delays in the citizenship process are unacceptable andindefensible. (Applause.) And together, immigrants and citizens alike,let me say we must recommit ourselves to the general duties of citizenship.Not just immigrants, but every American should know what's in ourConstitution and understand our shared history. Not just immigrants, butevery American should participate in our democracy by voting, byvolunteering and by running for office. Not just immigrants, but everyAmerican, on our campuses and in our communities, should serve -- communityservice breeds good citizenship. (Applause.) And not just immigrants,but every American should reject identity politics that seeks to separateus, not bring us together.

Ethnic pride is a very good thing. America is one of the places whichmost reveres the distinctive ethnic, racial, religious heritage of ourvarious peoples. The days when immigrants felt compelled to Anglicizetheir last name or deny their heritage are, thankfully, gone. But pride inone's ethnic and racial heritage must never become an excuse to withdrawfrom the larger American community. That does not honor diversity; itbreeds divisiveness. And that could weaken America. (Applause.)

Not just immigrants, but every American should recognize that ourpublic schools must be more than places where our children learn to read,they must also learn to be good citizens. They must all be able to makeAmerica's heroes, from Washington to Lincoln to Eleanor Roosevelt and RosaParks and Cesar Chavez, their own.

Today, too many Americans, and far too many immigrant childrenattended crowded, often crumbling inner city schools. Too many drop out ofschool altogether. And with more children from immigrant families enteringour country and our schools than at any time since the turn of the century,we must renew our efforts to rebuild our schools and make them the best inthe world. They must have better facilities; they must have smallerclasses; they must have properly trained teachers; they must have access totechnology; they must be the best in the world. (Applause.)

All of us, immigrants and citizens alike, must ensure that our newgroup of children learn our language, and we should find a way to do thistogether instead of launching another round of divisive political fights.(Applause.)

In the schools within the White House -- in the schools within just afew miles of the White House, across the Potomac River, we have the mostdiverse school district in America, where there are children from 180different racial and ethnic groups, speaking as native tongues about 100languages.

Now, it's all very well for someone to say, everyone of them shouldlearn English immediately. But we don't at this time necessarily havepeople who are trained to teach them English in all those languages. So Isay to you, it is important for children to retain their native language(Applause.) But unless they also learn English, they will never reachtheir full potential in the United States. (Applause.)

Of course, English learn at different rates, and, of course, childrenhave individual needs. But that cannot be an excuse for making sure thatwhen children come into our school system, we do whatever it takes withwhatever resources are at hand to make sure they learn as quickly as theycan the language that will be dominant language of this country's commerceand citizenship in the future.

We owe it to these children to do that. And we should not eitherdelay behind excuses or look for ways to turn what is essentially a humanissue of basic decency and citizenship and opportunity into a divisivepolitical debate. We have a stake together in getting together and movingforward on this. (Applause.)

Let me say, I applaud the students here at Portland State who aretutoring immigrant children to speak and read English. You are setting thekind of example I want our country to follow.

One hundred and forty years ago, in the First Lady's hometown ofChicago, immigrants outnumbered native Americans. Addressing a crowd therein 1858, Abraham Lincoln asked what connection those immigrants couldpossibly feel to people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson andJohn Adams, who founded our nation. Here was his answer: If they, theimmigrants, look back through this history to trace their connection tothose days by blood, they will find they have none. But our foundersproclaimed that we are all created equal in the eyes of God. And that,Lincoln said, is the electric cord in that declaration that links thehearts of patriotic and liberty-loving people everywhere.

Well, that electric cord, the conviction that we are all created equalin the eyes of God, still links every graduate here with every newimmigrant coming to our shores and every American who ever came before us.If you carry it with conscience and courage into the new century, it willlight our way to America's greatest days -- your days.

So, members of the class of 1998, go out and build the future of yourdreams. Do it together, for your children, for your grandchildren, foryour country.

Good luck, and God bless you. (Applause.)

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement

What's New - June 1998

National Ocean Conference

Equal Pay Act

Family Re-Union Conference

Portland State University Commencement

Ocean Conference

South Asia

Thurston High School Remarks

National Ocean Conference

Presidential Scholars

Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act

ISTEA Legislation

SAVER Summit

Speaks to DLC

National Ocean Conference, Plenary Session

New Efforts to Protect Our Oceans

The Opening of the Thoreau Institute

Oceans Announcements

Fight Against Drugs

Welcoming Ceremony in Xian, China

Korean President Kim Dae Jung

Roundtable Discussion in Xiahe, China

President Kim of South Korea

Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act

21st Century Community Learning Grants

Pritzker Awards Dinner

Nominations of Bill Richardson and Richard Holbrooke

Remarks to Religious Leaders

Family Re-Union Media Advisory

Meeting With Economic Advisors

Conference Address

A Fair, Accurate Census

New Data On Teen Smoking

Roundtable Discussion Remarks

Landmark Agricultural Bill

Conference Remarks

Denver Broncos, Super Bowl Champions

Family Re-Union Press Release

U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century

Roundtable Discussion in Shanghai, China.

MIT Commencement Address

Commencement Address to MIT Graduates