Thank you, Deborah. I also want to thank UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council. On behalf of the Obama Administration, I deeply appreciate the honor of speaking this evening about Senator Kennedy. What exactly did Senator Kennedy
do for the world’s displaced and disenfranchised citizens? A better question is what didn’t he do? He traveled the world or sent his staff to witness first hand the plight of refugees and victims, and then raised his booming voice to bring attention to their plight. In the 1970s, from Bengali refugees to Cambodians fleeing the Killing Fields and Vietnamese boat people; in the 1980s, from Cuban and Haitian refugees to support for the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese refguees in the late-1980s; In the 1990s, from the situation of Somalis and Liberians to that of Kosovars; and, in this decade, he pressed continually for the United States to right by vulnerable Iraqis.
In addition to the Immigration Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980 was a seminal achievement for the Senator, as it both codified U.S. accession to the 1967 Protocol to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of refugees, and laid the groundwork of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as we know it today. But there was so many pieces of other meaningful legislation to protect refugees and immigrants that the Senator drove over the years, including the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007.
At every turn, congressional staffers from other congressional offices, NGOs, and other advocates knew that they could go to Senator Kennedy on just about any protection issue – whether it was the ability of people whose homelands were engulfed in violence or other kinds of disasters to stay in the United States temporarily, whether to it was the fight to keep U.S. domestic asylum policy fair, just and accessible to the poor, whether it was the need to ensure that our programs protected victims of both right and left wing oppression – whatever – you knew you could go to Senator Kennedy, get a sympathetic hearing, and – most importantly – get results.
What a message he sent to so many young people who aspire to make a contribution in public life but wonder whether politics and the bureaucracy will create too many obstacles to making a difference.
And of course, you can tell a lot about a man or woman by both the quality of the people who work for him or her, as well as how they feel about him. To a person, this remarkable community of professionals shared the Senator’s steadfast determination to do the right thing – that is, take the humane option -- and one could always see the deep respect, affection and loyalty they felt for this giant of a man.
In 1980, Senator Kennedy said, and I quote, “Refugee problems are of deep concern to the American people, not only because of our Nation’s long and proud humanitarian record in assisting them – but also because refugees pose critical foreign policy problems for us and the international community. We know from recent history that massive refugee movements can unbalance peace and stability as much as any arms race or political or military confrontation.” This statement is as true today as when the Senator uttered it nearly thirty years ago. As we gather here today to honor a truly great American and friend to refugees, let us rededicate ourselves to advancing the cause that he championed for all these years.