After 14 years in the United States House of Representatives and approaching 15 years in the Senate, double Hoya and Illinois Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL, SFS ’66, Law ’69) seems to really take the Georgetown motto of “men and women for others” to heart. The senator spoke for
about 300 students a packed Gaston Hall the evening of Tuesday, October 18, in a lecture hosted by the GU College Democrats, and struck a careful balance between humor and gravity to engage his audience.
He started by recounting his own time as a Hoya. He was studying in the library when news arrived that President Kennedy had been assassinated and “everything came to a stop.”
From there, he discussed the way Georgetown students witness “the march of history right before [their] eyes” because the school is “so close to the decision-making that literally changes the world.”
Durbin also offered words of encouragement to the portion of the audience that remains undecided about the future—apparently, the senator didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life as a second-semester senior at Georgetown.
He took an internship his then-senator of Illinois, Paul Douglass, where he became enthralled with American politics and coincidently acquired the nickname, “Dick,” that has followed him since. The first person to call him Dick was Paul Douglass, and he certainly did not want to correct the senator. “The name stuck,” Durbin said.
But Durbin’s road to office was anything but smooth. After three straight losses, he was finally elected to the House of Representatives in 1987.
As a senator, Dick Durbin has been an active force behind the DREAM Act, which seeks to make it easier for illegal immigrants who have been U.S. residents for most of their lives to attend college.
He recounted the story that first impassioned him to become involved with the issue. Chicago has a Merit Music program, which provides instruments to underprivileged schools. The program has been immensely successful—100% of participants go on to college. His office received a call one day that a young Korean woman and concert pianist could not afford college because, although she had lived in the U.S. since the age of two, she was technically not an American citizen.
“The door was closing right in front of her face,” Durbin recalled.
Durbin was struck by the way this story mirrored his own. His mother also came to America, having immigrated from Lithuania, at age two, and her family faced the hardships of immigrant life. Now her son is in the United States Senate.
“This is the story of America,” Durbin said.
Although the DREAM Act failed once again after being re-introduced to the Senate in May of this year, Senator Durbin energized the audience about the act’s future.
“We’re not finished,” he said. “We are still fighting.” This struck a chord with the audience, and was met with boisterous applause.
This fight includes a bill that the senator is currently cosponsoring, which aims to make certain concessions to the other side of the aisle.
After he finished his lecture, Durbin took questions from the audience. One student inquired about the deportation of illegal immigrants, particularly the youth whom the DREAM Act targets. Durbin responded that such deportation is unnecessary, as “the young people who would qualify for the DREAM Act pose no threat to us.”
“We have an important responsibility to keep this country safe,” he argued. “We should not waste our time deporting those youth who should be citizens.”
Students asked questions ranging from Obama’s jobs bill to benefits for same-sex military spouses, and Durbin kept coming back to two main ideas. The first was the problem raised by the current partisan political climate. According to the senator, Republicans have no alternative jobs plan, and are looking to protect the richest in America and to prevent the president from attaining any victories. He asserted that this is not the proper way to run a country.
“Fourteen million people out of work could care less what the bumper sticker is going to look like in 2012,” he said.
His other point focused on creating opportunity as one of the pillars of liberalism.
“A lot of these DREAM Act students could turn out to be just as talented and successful [given the chance],” Durbin said. Opportunity for all Americans is “part of this country.”
Above all, the senator stressed that America was built on the values of freedom, equality, free speech, and religious freedom. In terms of any of these pillars of democracy, Durbin emphasized that above all, people should be willing to fight for the rights of their political enemies as much as for their own—a concept that seems lost on many of today’s politicians.
Photo from NJ.com.