[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[June 13, 1998]
[Pages 955-959]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 955]]

Commencement Address at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon
June 13, 1998

    Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the 
wonderful warm welcome. President Bernstine, Provost Reardon, Senator 
Wyden, Representatives 
Blumenauer and Hooley, Treasurer Hill, General Myers, Superintendent 
Paulus; my good friend, your great former 
Senator, Mark Hatfield--I'm delighted to 
see you here today, sir; thank you. To the faculty, especially the 
faculty honorees today; State Board of Higher Education; the alumni; to 
the speakers, Theo Hall and Jane Rongerude--I thought they did a marvelous job on 
behalf of the students. Congratulations, Mr. Miller, and thank you for your contributions to Portland State.
    And let me say to all the members of the class of 1998, I thank you 
for allowing me to come here today. I congratulate you on your 
tremendous 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 while you carried a full course load, and I 
congratulate you on what you've done.
    What I want to say to you in the beginning is that you will see that 
it was worth it. In the world in which we live, there is a higher 
premium on education than ever before, not only because of what you know 
but because of what you will be able to learn for the rest of your life. 
The education and the skills you take away from this campus will open 
doors for you forever. And I congratulate you on having the foresight as 
well as the determination 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 
of the demand generated by the GI bill at the end of World War II, one 
of the most farsighted things that was ever done to explode opportunity 
across America. The GI bill helped to create the modern American middle 
class and the prosperity we enjoyed. It also helped to create a number 
of community-based institutions of higher education, which more and more 
now are beginning to look in their student bodies the way they did over 
50 years ago.
    More than half the students here are over 25. More than a few of you 
are considerably over 25. [Laughter] Still, you all look quite young to 
me. [Laughter] As was said earlier, I have worked hard, and our 
administration has, to open the doors of college to everyone who would 
work for it, with the HOPE scholarship and permanent tax credits for all 
higher education and more Pell grants and better student loans and the 
AmeriCorps program and work-study programs. We have to create a country 
in which everyone at any age believes that they have access to continue 
their education for a lifetime.
    I want to focus on this institution again as an institution of the 
future. You know, a couple of years ago I came out here, and we had a 
conference on the Pacific Rim and our relationship to the Asia-Pacific 
region that Portland State hosted. And I have to say that one of your 
most distinguished alumni was a particular friend of mine, the late 
Congressman Walter Capps from California, one of the finest people I 
ever knew went to this school. And he was a person of the future in the 
Congress. His wife succeeded him, and we were 
talking just last evening, before I came here, about how grateful 
Congressman Capps always was to Portland State for giving him the 
ability to go out into the world and make 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 new 
century and a new millennium, America is changing at breathtaking speed. 
We know that most of these changes have been good. We're grateful as a 
nation to have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, the lowest 
crime rate in 25 years, the lowest welfare rolls in 29 years, the first 
balanced budget and surplus in 29 years, the highest homeownership in 
history. We feel gratitude. We know that none of us alone is responsible 
for these things, but all of us together have come to terms with the 
challenges of the modern world and its opportunities and we're moving 
America in a good direction.
    But this spring I have attempted to go out across the country and 
address graduates about

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the challenges this new era poses, not only because even when there is a 
lot of good news out there, we should never forget that there are 
challenges but, perhaps even more importantly, because when times are 
good, it imposes upon Americans a special responsibility to take our 
confidence and our prosperity and look to the long-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, 
I talked about defending our Nation against the new security threats of 
the 21st century, including terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, 
and global environmental degradation. At MIT, not very long ago, I 
talked about the challenges of the information age and the importance of 
bringing those opportunities to all Americans, bringing the Internet 
into every classroom, ensuring that every young student is computer-
literate. Maybe I should have given that speech here. [Laughter]
    Today I want to talk to you about what may be the most important 
subject of all, how we can strengthen the bonds of our national 
community as we grow more racially and ethnically diverse.
    It was just a year ago tomorrow that I launched a national 
initiative on race, asking Americans to address the persistent problems 
and the limitless possibilities of our diversity. This effort is 
especially important right now because, as we grow more diverse, our 
ability to deal with the challenges will determine whether we can really 
bind ourselves together as one America. And even more importantly in the 
near term, and over the next few years perhaps as well, our ability to 
exercise world leadership for peace, for freedom, for prosperity in a 
world that is both smaller and more closely connected and yet 
increasingly gripped with tense, often bloody conflicts rooted in 
racial, ethnic, and religious divisions, our ability to lead that kind 
of world to a better place rests in no small measure on our ability to 
be a better place here in the United States that can be a model for the 
    The driving force behind our increasing diversity is a new, large 
wave of immigration. It is changing the face of America. And while most 
of the changes are good, they do present challenges which demand more, 
both from new immigrants and from our citizens. Citizens share a 
responsibility to welcome new immigrants, to ensure that they strengthen 
our Nation, to give them their chance at the brass ring. In turn, new 
immigrants have a responsibility to learn, to work, to contribute to 
America. If both citizens and immigrants do their part, we will grow 
ever stronger in the new global information economy.
    More than any other nation on Earth, America has constantly drawn 
strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants. In each 
generation, they have proved to be the most restless, the most 
adventurous, the most innovative, the most industrious of people. 
Bearing different memories, honoring different heritages, they have 
strengthened our economy, enriched our culture, renewed our promise of 
freedom and opportunity for all.
    Of course, the path has not always run smooth. Some Americans have 
met each group of newcomers with suspicion and violence and 
discrimination. So great was the hatred of Irish immigrants 150 years 
ago that they were greeted with signs that read, ``No Dogs or Irish.'' 
So profound was the fear of Chinese in the 1880's that they were barred 
from entering the country. So deep was the distrust of immigrants from 
Southern and Eastern Europe at the beginning of this century that they 
were forced to take literacy tests specifically designed to keep them 
out of America. Eventually, the guarantees of our Constitution and the 
better angels of our nature prevailed over ignorance and insecurity, 
over prejudice and fear.
    But now we are being tested again by a new wave of immigration 
larger than any in a century, far more diverse than any in our history. 
Each year, nearly a million people come legally to America. Today, 
nearly one in 10 people in America was born in another country; one in 5 
schoolchildren are from immigrant families. Today, largely because of 
immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York 
City. Within 5 years, there will be no majority race in our largest 
State, California. In a little more than 50 years, there will be no 
majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone 
through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time.
    What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, 
or they can weaken and divide us. We must decide.
    Let me state my view unequivocally. I believe new immigrants are 
good for America. They are revitalizing our cities. They are building 
our new

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economy. They are strengthening our ties to the global economy, just as 
earlier waves of immigrants settled the new frontier and powered the 
Industrial Revolution. They are energizing our culture and broadening 
our vision of the world. They are renewing our most basic values and 
reminding us all of what it truly means to be an American.
    It means working hard, like a teenager from Vietnam who does his 
homework as he watches the cash register at his family's grocery store. 
It means making a better life for your children, like a father from 
Russia who works two jobs and still finds time to take his daughter to 
the public library to practice her reading. It means dreaming big 
dreams, passing them on to your children.
    You have a lot of stories like that here at Portland State. Just 
this morning I met one of your graduates--or two, to be specific: Mago 
Gilson, an immigrant from Mexico who 
came here without a high school education; 12 years later she is 
receiving her master's degree in education, on her way to realizing her 
dream of becoming a teacher. She is joined in this graduating class by 
her son Eddy, who had dreams of his own and 
worked full-time for 7 years to put himself through school. Today he 
receives a bachelor's degree in business administration. And soon--
there's more--soon her son, Oscar, whom I 
also met, will receive his own master's degree in education. I'd like to 
ask the Gilsons and their family members who are here to rise and be 
recognized. There she is. Give them a hand. [Applause]
    In the Gilson family and countless like them, we see the spirit that 
built America, the drive to succeed, the commitment to family, to 
education, to work, the hope for a better life. In their stories we see 
a reflection of our parents' and grandparents' journey, a powerful 
reminder that our America is not so much a place as a promise, not a 
guarantee but a chance, not a particular race but an embrace of our 
common humanity.
    Now, some Americans don't see it that way. When they hear new 
accents or see new faces, they feel unsettled. They worry that new 
immigrants come not to work hard but to live off our largesse. They're 
afraid the America they know and love is becoming a foreign land. This 
reaction may be understandable, but it's wrong. It's especially wrong 
when anxiety and fear give rise to policies and ballot propositions to 
exclude immigrants from our civic life. I believe it's wrong to deny 
law-abiding immigrants benefits available to everyone else; wrong to 
ignore them as people not worthy of being counted in the census. It's 
not only wrong, it's un-American.
    Let me be clear: I also think it's wrong to condone illegal 
immigration that flouts our laws, strains our tolerance, taxes our 
resources. Even a nation of immigrants must have rules and conditions 
and limits, and when they are disregarded, public support for 
immigration erodes in ways that are destructive to those who are newly 
arrived and those who are still waiting patiently to come.
    We must remember, however, that the vast majority of immigrants are 
here legally. In every measurable way, they give more to our society 
than they take. Consider this: On average, immigrants pay $1,800 more in 
taxes every year than they cost our system in benefits. Immigrants are 
paying into Social Security at record rates. Most of them are young, and 
they will help to balance the budget when we baby boomers retire and put 
strains on 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 called the City on a Hill, or the Old Gold Mountain, or El Norte, 
is still seen around the world as the land of new beginnings. We should 
all be proud that people living in isolated villages in far corners of 
the world actually recognize the Statue of Liberty. We should rejoice 
that children the world over study our Declaration of Independence and 
embrace its creed.
    My fellow Americans, we descendants of those who passed through the 
portals of Ellis Island must not lock the door behind us. Americans 
whose parents were denied the rights of citizenship simply because of 
the color of their skin must not deny those rights to others because of 
the country of their birth or the nature of their faith.
    We should treat new immigrants as we would have wanted our own 
grandparents to be treated. We should share our country with them, not 
shun 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 the 
same land put race and ethnicity before country and humanity. If America 
is to remain the world's most diverse

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democracy, if immigration is to strengthen America as it has throughout 
our history, then we must say to one another: Whether your ancestors 
came here in slave ships or on the Mayflower, whether they landed on 
Ellis Island or at Los Angeles International Airport, or have been here 
for thousands of years, if you believe in the Declaration of 
Independence and the Constitution, if you accept the responsibilities as 
well as the rights embedded in them, then you are an American. Only that 
belief can keep us one America in the 21st century.
    So I say, as President, to all our immigrants, you are welcome here. 
But you must honor our laws, embrace our culture, learn our language, 
know our history, and when the time comes, you should become citizens. 
And I say to all Americans, we have responsibilities as well to welcome 
our newest immigrants, to vigorously enforce laws against 
discrimination. And I'm very proud that our Nation's top civil rights 
enforcer is Bill Lann Lee, the son of Chinese 
immigrants who grew up in Harlem.
    We must protect immigrants' rights and ensure their access to 
education, health care, and housing and help them to become successful, 
productive citizens. When immigrants take responsibility to become 
citizens and have met all the requirements to do so, they should be 
promptly evaluated and accepted. The present delays in the citizenship 
process are unacceptable and indefensible.
    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 our Constitution and 
understand our shared history. Not just immigrants but every American 
should participate in our democracy by voting, by volunteering, and by 
running for office. Not just immigrants but every American, on our 
campuses and in our communities, should serve; community service breeds 
good citizenship. And not just immigrants but every American should 
reject identity politics that seeks to separate us, not bring us 
    Ethnic pride is a very good thing. America is one of the places 
which most reveres the distinctive ethnic, racial, religious heritage of 
our various peoples. The days when immigrants felt compelled to 
Anglicize their last name or deny their heritage are, thankfully, gone. 
But pride in one's ethnic and racial heritage must never become an 
excuse to withdraw from the larger American community. That does not 
honor diversity; it breeds divisiveness. And that could weaken America.
    Not just immigrants but every American should recognize that our 
public 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 
make America's heroes, from Washington to Lincoln to Eleanor Roosevelt 
and Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, their own.
    Today too many Americans and far too many immigrant children 
attended crowded, often crumbling inner city schools. Too many drop out 
of school altogether. And with more children from immigrant families 
entering our 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 in the world. They must have better facilities; they must 
have smaller classes; they must have properly trained teachers; they 
must have access to technology; they must be the best in the world.
    All of us, immigrants and citizens alike, must ensure that our new 
group of children learn our language, and we should find a way to do 
this together instead of launching another round of divisive political 
    In the schools within the White House--excuse me, in the schools 
within just a few miles of the White House, across the Potomac River, we 
have the most diverse school district in America, where there are 
children from 180 different racial and ethnic groups, speaking as native 
tongues about 100 languages. Now, it's all very well for someone to say, 
every one of them should learn English immediately. But we don't at this 
time necessarily have people who are trained to teach them English in 
all those languages. So I say to you, it is important for children to 
retain their native language. But unless they also learn English, they 
will never reach their full potential in the United States.
    Of course, children learn at different rates, and, of course, 
children have individual needs. But that cannot be an excuse for making 
sure that when children come into our school system, we do whatever it 
takes with whatever resources are at hand to make sure they learn as 
quickly as they can the language that will be dominant language of this 
country's commerce and citizenship in the future. We owe it to these 
children to do that.

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    And we should not either delay behind excuses or look for ways to 
turn what is essentially a human issue of basic decency and citizenship 
and opportunity into a divisive political debate. We have a stake 
together in getting together and moving forward on this.
    Let me say, I applaud the students here at Portland State who are 
tutoring immigrant children to speak and read English. You are setting 
the kind of example I want our country to follow.
    One hundred and forty years ago, in the First Lady's hometown of 
Chicago, immigrants outnumbered native Americans. Addressing a crowd 
there in 1858, Abraham Lincoln asked what connection those immigrants 
could possibly feel to people like George Washington and Thomas 
Jefferson and John Adams, who founded our Nation. Here was his answer: 
``If they, the immigrants, look back through this history to trace their 
connection to those days by blood, they will find they have none. But 
our Founders proclaimed that we are all created equal in the eyes of 
God. And that,'' Lincoln said, ``is the electric cord in that 
declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving people 
    Well, that electric cord, the conviction that we are all created 
equal in the eyes of God, still links every graduate here with every new 
immigrant 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 
will light our way to America's greatest days--your days.
    So, members of the class of 1998, go out and build the future of 
your dreams. Do it together, for your children, for your grandchildren, 
for your country.
    Good luck, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:25 a.m. in the Rose Garden Arena. In his 
remarks, he referred to Daniel O. Bernstine, president, and Michael F. 
Reardon, provost, Portland State University; Jim Hill, State treasurer; 
Hardy Myers, State attorney general; Norma Paulus, State superintendent 
of public instruction; Theo Hall III and Jane Rongerude, class 
representatives, class of 1998; and Robert G. Miller, president, Fred 
Meyer, Inc., and recipient of an honorary degree. A portion of these 
remarks could not be verified because the tape was incomplete.