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ASU events to explore themes of populism, immigration from trans-Atlantic perspective

"No one is born a neo-Nazi." ASU programming tries to understand how it happens.
October 9, 2017

Two weeks ago Angela Merkel won a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor. At the same time, however, a far-right party, Alternative for Germany, gained a spot in Parliament for the first time in more than 60 years.

The New York Times reported the AfD’s victory showed evidence of “voter anger over immigration and inequality,” with “anxieties over security and national identity” on the rise.

This fall, ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures and School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS) will host “Germany: Making Choices,” a series of events that will include film screenings, visiting lecturers, a roundtable discussion and a student project competition. The program is supported by funding from the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

“We wanted students to engage with some of the issues that Germans are engaging with and try to think about ways in which those issues are actually not just specific to Germany but global in many respects,” said Daniel Gilfillan, associate professor of German studies.

Gilfillan worked with SHPRS Assistant Professor Volker Benkert to plan the series of events.

“We don’t want to convert anyone,” Benkert said, “but we want students to be willing to engage the topic of populism, of immigration, of nationalism from many different angles.”

The first event in the series, which is free and open to the public, is the screening of the film “We are Young. We are Strong.” It will take place at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in Wrigley Hall, room 201 on the Tempe campus.

Gilfillan and Benkert sat down with ASU Now ahead of the screening to delve into some of the issues the program will explore.

Question: Why is Angela Merkel’s opening of Germany’s borders to refugees problematic?

Volker Benkert: At least a million [refugees] came [to Germany] in 2015. The number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany now has gone down dramatically to about 200,000 this year. However, this has very little to do with what the German government did and a lot to do with other countries closing their borders.

So Angela Merkel trying to claim that she solved the migration crisis is a very difficult claim to make. I think she’s doing the right thing, she’s trying to think about how we can make decisions about asylum in the countries where people are from ... But it’s a humanitarian crisis that has been looming for a long time and that Angela Merkel failed to acknowledge until it was literally on Germany’s doorstep.

So she decided, without consulting the federal government or consulting European partners, to open Germany’s borders for refugees. The humanitarian act is laudable, but we have ignored the problem so long that even today what Germany can actually do to solve the refugee crisis is very limited. Germany has no impact on what’s going on in the Middle East, in Syria; it’s a war zone, it has been for a long time. The German government has no leverage to change that in any way. … So at the end of the day, if Merkel claims that this was a one-time humanitarian crisis where Germany had to step up to the plate … that argument is laudable, but that humanitarian crisis still exists.

Daniel Gilfillan: This was and still remains one of the issues behind voters’ choices at the ballot box. And I think that had a great influence on how they voted. So we now have what we can describe as an extreme right party, the Alternative for Germany party, winning enough percentage of the vote to have seats in Parliament. They’ll be the third-largest party in the German government for the first time in 60 years.

Q: Why should Americans be paying attention to this?

Gilfillan: One of the themes we’re exploring through this programming is rising populism and nationalism, not just in Europe and Germany but globally. I was attracted to that topic from the idea of immigration and the refugee crisis, which is a global issue.

Benkert: We also want to explore this theme of transatlantic populism. [One of our visiting lecturers] will discuss the themes that pervade populism both in the United States as well as in Germany. And in fact, there are quite a lot. There is a certain amount of fear-mongering, there is a certain amount of xenophobia. But there is also this very clear critique of existing structures that don’t seem to offer solutions to real problems. [For example], illegal immigration.

Because illegal immigration is real, and it is a problem, and the American government has not found a solution to that. When Angela Merkel opened the border, populists in Germany argued that she violated constitutional rights because it was just not her call. And they do have a point there. So there’s a perception among these populists — and I think that they exploit this for very problematic causes — that the existing parties are unable to solve problems. You’ve got immigration, you’ve got globalization, movement of jobs and people who feel left behind, the blue-collar workers … And these are very complex problems that clearly any government will have a very hard time solving. But that alleged weakness of existing structures is exploited into a narrative that these structures are somehow wrong.

Q: Why the focus on immigration?

Gilfillan: My idea was to try to engage students in thinking about what’s going on beyond our own borders, and to look at the humanitarian side of these issues. Immigration is a sort of a hub issue that brings together serious questions about the impact of war, the impact of climate change, the impact of economic disparity … And these types of issues run deep, and this [situation in Germany] is just one of the reactions when those deep issues aren’t addressed adequately. There are these micro-connections between what a lot of Americans consider to be single issues. They don’t understand necessarily that below them, behind them, beyond them, there are these underlying reasons for why people are on the move. And I think it’s not going to be solved overnight, but I also don’t think the tide of refugees is going to ebb any time soon. I think with climate change, especially, we will be seeing more and more of it.

Benkert: Immigration poses the question of: Who is an American? Who is a German? What does it take to become an American? What does it take to become a German? What is, essentially, the nation state? If the defining feature of a nation state is that it has borders, and Angela Merkel says you can just come in, what then? And there are other things that challenge the nation state as well. There are global corporations that wield enormous powers that transcend the nation state, and even play nation states against each other. So the big question is, in this age of globalization, where does that leave the nation state? Which, after all, is the paradigm under which we all live. We pay taxes to the nation state; we follow the laws of the nation state. And I think that’s the question that, especially this election in Germany now poses because there is now a party that clearly has the idea that German-ness is connected to your ancestry and who obviously wants to make it much more difficult for others to become German. And that sentiment, I think, is the same [in America].

Q: How does that nationalist sentiment get spurred on?

Gilfillan: The German film we’re showing this week, “We Are Young. We Are Strong,” is about a very specific incident in the northeastern city of Rostock, just after unification, in which there was a riot around a group of asylum homes that was spearheaded by some neo-Nazi groups but then eventually joined by regular German citizens, ostensibly because of feelings of disenfranchisement.

Benkert: There’s also a very tender love story built into that because there’s always a chance for this group of people to not set those homes of asylum seekers on fire. To find opportunities to find love, to do what young people do. So I appreciate that deeply because no one is born a neo-Nazi. It is societal disappointments that socialize you in a way that you become susceptible to this kind of rhetoric. So these far-right populists that we see, both in America as well as in Germany, are not just as helpless victims of propaganda but [are influenced] by deeper problems in our society that obviously we have failed to address. So where do we as a society fail that we get to this point where we are right now, with two deeply divided societies. With the emergence of, in both countries, I think it’s fair to say, kind of a rhetoric from the right that is deeply disturbing.

For more information about the film series, including a list of upcoming screenings, click here. 

Top photo: Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo by Sven Gross-Selbeck (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Immigration advocate says communities' values can guide reform

October 9, 2017

ASU Law hosts Ali Noorani discussion moderated by Cronkite School faculty

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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