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Immigration advocate says communities' values can guide reform

ASU Law hosts Ali Noorani discussion moderated by Cronkite School faculty

Ali Noorani speaks to an ASU audience
October 09, 2017

A nationally recognized immigration advocate and author said Monday that reform is not insurmountable and that many communities across the nation are showing the way, but it'll take a cross-sector of society to light the path to illumination.

“I'm not going to say we've figured this out, but what I am going to say is when civic and community leaders, clergy, law enforcement and business groups work together, they can help us get through this process," Ali Noorani said. "The best way to help someone with this issue is through their faith and through their values."

Noorani’s comment was made at a discussion on immigrants and immigration moderated by Cronkite School faculty Fernanda SantosSantos, who is an immigrant, is an award-winning journalist and author, and a Southwest Borderlands Initiative professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at ASU. at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Arizona State University's Downtown Phoenix campus.

ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law hosted the event, whose audience included former Phoenix Mayor and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. The goal of the discussion was to have a dialogue about the findings in Noorani’s new book, “There Goes The Neighborhood." The book is an examination of how certain communities have rallied to overcome prejudice and are meeting the challenges of American immigration.

"Ali Noorani's visit to Arizona could not be more timely in light of the ongoing debate about immigration and particularly the status of DACA students," said José Cárdenas, senior vice president and general counsel for ASU. "Ali is one of the most thoughtful and influential figures on the immigration issue."

Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization promoting the value of immigrants and immigration. Before joining the forum, Noorani was executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and he has served in leadership roles within public health and environmental organizations. He is also an op-ed contributor to and, among others.

“There Goes the Neighborhood” is based on nearly 60 interviews with local and national leaders from law enforcement, business, immigrant and faith communities to illustrate the changes and opportunities they face. From pastors to sheriffs to high school principals, Noorani says most people are working to advance society's interests, not exploiting a crisis at the expense of one community. He said some cities have reached a happy conclusion while others struggle to find balance.

"All throughout the book I try to show that this is not just a policy issue but a cultural issue, and we need to approach it in a very different way," Noorani said.

Growing up in Salinas, California, in the 1970s as the son of Pakistani immigrants, Noorani said he quickly learned how to forge alliances among people of wide-ranging backgrounds, a skill that has served him well as as a coalition builder. He said his book is the product of months of traveling across the country — from apple farms in Washington to the White House in Washington, D.C. — and offers a practical approach to bringing Americans together around the hot-button issue.

He pointed to a July 2010 incident in Utah as an example of the community coming together in a time of crisis. That's when a handful of state workers accessed confidential documents and leaked the names of 1,300 residents of Latino descent as purported illegal immigrants. Members of the Latino community called the list a "witch hunt" and worried that it would fuel further deportation and racial profiling. The leak occurred when Utah lawmakers were considering immigration legislation similar to Arizona's SB 1070, the broadest and strictest anti-illegal-immigration measure passed in the state's history.

Noorani said the leak backfired and was a flashpoint for a change in immigration reform in that state. 

"It triggered such a blowback from the community and there was a seismic shift from residents, who said, 'There's something wrong with this,'" Noorani said. "If Utah can do this, then it can be replicated in other parts of the country."

Eventually the Utah Compact was created — a 213-word document with the goal of keeping families together and keeping the law enforcement focus on fighting crime rather than on civil violations. Lawmakers eventually passed a package of bills inspired by the compact.

Although Utah dodged a bullet and landed on its feet, Noorani said there are no quick fixes when it comes to immigration and reform.

"If there was a quick fix to the debate, this country would look a lot different," Noorani said.

Top photo: Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum talks about American's attitudes toward immigration as well as his new book, "There Goes the Neighborhood," at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Monday in downtown Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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