Ali Noorani is not your typical pro-immigrant activist.
He is not Hispanic, he is Muslim and his parents are immigrants from Pakistan. Instead of organizing groups that have normally supported the cause for decades, he focuses on something quite different: to convince conservative Americans not to be afraid of immigration and demographic changes in the country.
This is how Noorani believes votes in the House of Representatives can be gradually changed in order to acheive comprehensive immigration reform for the United States.
In mid-December last year, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump began to propose the closure of borders to all Muslims in America, Noorani sent a message to Trump via Twitter.
It is likely that the message did not make Donald Trump grow fond of Noorani, although he believes that the Republican is not of such bad news for the movement that fights for immigration reform as some believe. Noorani is not in favor of ranting against Trump nor against those who support him, but rather fights for people to understand the current situation in the country: to understand, especially, the Americans who support him, including their positions on immigrants and refugees and what their personal motivations are.
“I know what the polls say, but I think we must understand that they are the most isolated and frightened Americans. Our challenge is to create a cultural conversation so that they do not feel afraid. I know we’re not going to convince them, but there are people who may have an influence on them: their police chiefs, the pastors at their churches, their local entrepreneurs,” said Noorani during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
The director of the National Immigration Forum, one of the few pro-immigrant leaders of Muslim origin, also believes that the presence of Donald Trump on the national scene is positive for the movement. Why positive?, we asked. This seems to go against everything that the vast majority of pro-immigrant groups are saying.
“I think the debate that Trump is forcing now is very positive for our movement. He presents a very clear choice to the American people: Are you with Donald Trump and in favor of closing the borders and to stop immigration or, do you realize that America has changed and continues to change and you are aware that this country should have a difficult but positive conversation about it?,” said Noorani.
La Opinión Entrevistas
Not everyone sees it as he does, but Noorani reached a different point of view a few years ago when he realized that after many defeats, part of the pro-immigrant fight should change and take into account certain realities.
“Any conservative voter does not care about what a pro-immigrant rights activist has to say, what the Forum says, what La Opinion says,” he said. “They are interested in what the pastor of his evangelical church says, his police chief, the businessman he knows and brings jobs to his community.”
Executive Action, Not the Solution
The immigrant rights movement has fought for many years without changing immigration laws. The most prominent achievement of the movement has been to ensure that President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action Program for Immigrant Children, DACA in 2012 and a larger program to other parents of young immigrants and citizens and residents (DACA plus and DAPA), announced in December 2014.
The first DACA has been a success, by being a benefit to more than 700,000 young people. The other two are waiting for the decision of a litigation and should soon reach a final decision from the Supreme Court.
To Noorani, it is important that these programs exist, but should not even be, remotely, the ultimate goal of the movement.
“There is a limit to what the Democrats can do with that executive action and what they can do in Congress too,” said Noorani. “If we wait until the House of Representatives switches hands, this may not happen until at least 2022 and some say that maybe until 2032. We do not have time to expect the Democrats to be the ones who resolve this. We need to convince more and more districts and congressmen.”
How do you convince a congressman from a district in Kansas, or anywhere else in the country, where the people are frightened by the rapid demographic change and the arrival of Latino immigrants?
“There is no quick way to do this. It is a slow process, conversation is painful. In districts where a demographic change brings a voting swing, it may be easier. But in other districts, persuasion will come from those local leaders who can explain why immigration reform will benefit security, the economy, etc.,” he said.
That’s why the NIF spent three quarters of a million dollars in a television commercial that was aired during commercial breaks of one of the Republican debates this fall.
That commercial used a hopeful speech by former President Ronald Reagan, to remind the Conservatives that there is a positive view of this country of immigrants: “The United States, a free and prosperous land with open doors for those who have the heart and will to come”, were his last speech’s words in the White House, January 11, 1989, nine days before leaving office.
A hope that Noorani shares, in the ability of the immigrant rights movement to achieve its goals.
Pakistani parents who immigrated to America in 1971, looking for work as physical therapists.
He was born in Santa Cruz, California and lived in Salinas, a farming area, since he was 2 years old.
He grew up there surrounded by Latino immigrants. “My friends were mostly farm workers or relatives of the farms’ owners. My sisters and I grew up with a variety of acquaintances and experiences that marked us from our childhood.”
He did not follow the tradition of becoming an entrepreneur, engineer or doctor, like many in his community tend to do. “I’m a failure in that sense,” he explains.
He studied public health and worked in the environmental health field, and organizing health programs. “That was my first relationship with the immigrant community.”
In 2003 he began working for a local organization in Boston, the “Immigrant and Refugee Coalition of Massachusetts.” “I knew nothing about immigration, but I knew how to communicate with people and build coalitions.”
“I feel very fortunate to work on these issues and immigration. Almost no issue touches the lives of so many people in a so decisive way, “he says.
He was part of the organization of pro-immigrant protests in 2006 and 2007 against the Sensenbrenner bill that was developing in Congress. He realized, through these community meetings, that “evangelical pastors know the community and know the subject in great depth.”
He became director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington in May of 2008.
Since 2010, he shifted the focus of the NIF, from a traditional pro immigrant organization, to one that creates coalitions with conservative groups to move forward the issue of the migration reform.
He organized the “Bibles, Plates and Business” coalition that involve religious, police and business community to promote the benefits of immigration and immigration reform.