How a Wisecracking Liberal Won Over Conservatives — on Immigration
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the far right and the far left have dominated the immigration debate long enough.
By Meghan Walsh
Ali Noorani says his Indian and Pakistani immigrant parents always pushed him to learn about other cultures and pursue his passions. But when I say it sounds like they encouraged self-exploration, his reply: “No, we’re South Asian. We don’t do that.” The 41-year-old doesn’t smile afterward. And his dark brown eyes never stray from their straight-ahead stare.
Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a long-standing advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the offshoot group Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform. But he isn’t your typical Beltway ambassador. With a buzz cut and a gray goatee, he’s actually funny, in a deadpan way. And kind of cool. Anyone following him on Twitter during the Grammys would have been bombarded with commentary such as this: “Can’t tell if Kanye is a better singer or getting better at using Auto-tune.”
Perhaps it’s his wit; perhaps it’s his laid-back demeanor. But whatever his charm, this Kanye-listening liberal has found a way to get conservatives to listen to him — and on a pretty touchy subject too. Indeed, since taking the helm in 2008 at the National Immigration Forum, a traditionally left-leaning outfit, he has managed to bring together everyone from conservative Southern Baptists to tax-abolitionist Grover Norquist to the usual liberal suspects. A debate that so far had been waged from the corners is now taking place in the middle. “Ali has done a fascinating thing,” Norquist says. “With him, the many quieter voices that weren’t heard before now outweigh the loud voices.”
Even his biggest opponent, Mike Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank, says this: “I’m kind of glad more of the people on his side aren’t as affable as he is, because they’d probably be more successful.”
Noorani’s parents, both physical therapists, immigrated to California in the 1970s. When looking back at how he was raised in the small, mostly agricultural city of Salinas, he recalls an incident from when he was around 10 years old, and his dad had surprised him by getting up from lunch to give his food to a homeless man he’d noticed outside. It’s an image that’s stuck with him for years. And while Noorani is not rushing out of restaurants with plates of food, he says that kind of awareness has long been ingrained.
After running two large community health centers in Boston in his 20s, Noorani moved to the head of a state immigration advocacy coalition in 2003, where he began to look for new ways of tackling the issue. His first move was getting out of Boston and traveling to Massachusetts’ borders to figure out how immigration was affecting communities from every corner. Even doing that, though, didn’t give him the full picture. It wasn’t until 2007, when a raid in New Bedford detained 300 people and left countless families looking for their loved ones, that Noorani says he began to understand — and, more importantly, use — the emotional impact of enforcement. In his monotone way, Noorani began telling the personal stories of immigrants as a way to get the public’s attention. “People may not always agree on the rights of the individual, but they will agree that families should not be ripped apart by the federal government,” he says.
While he continued that approach after moving to Washington, D.C., Noorani initially followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, talking mostly to the left. Then when the Democrats missed their opportunity to move reform through in 2010, he had another aha moment: He realized those on his side would never be successful if they didn’t understand their opponent. “We changed our ways pretty dramatically after that,” he says.
The first thing Noorani did was look at a map. The South and Mountain West had the least support for immigration; they also had the highest numbers of evangelicals and the fastest-growing populations of those living in the U.S. without legal permission. So again he spent time getting to know the residents of these regions — how they were affected by immigration and what they cared about. He soon learned that religious, law enforcement and business groups all shared a vested interest, whether moral or economic, in passing reform; this led to the Bibles, Badges and Business coalition. “Immigration isn’t a problem we need to solve as much as an opportunity we need to seize,” says Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and one of the unlikely allies to join the fight for immigration reform.
What these various players want is simple: for those already living in the U.S. illegally to be given a path to citizenship, and an enforcement system that is both humane and effective. Krikorian and some other conservatives want the opposite — strict enforcement first, limited visas thereafter and then perhaps a reprieve for some, but not all. “Pro-amnesty folks don’t actually want enforcement,” Krikorian says. “The only reason they pay it lip service is to get amnesty in exchange.”
One of Noorani’s first improbable partners was Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who says Noorani makes “Lyndon Johnson look like a substitute teacher.” And while their politics couldn’t be more different, the two have become close friends, texting almost every few days. Just recently, Noorani asked Moore about being both pro-life and pro-death penalty. “He wasn’t calling me a hypocrite,” Moore says. “He genuinely tries to understand where people are coming from.”
Which goes back to why Noorani is so into pop culture: What better way to see society than through the lens of its interests? “That’s what real people do; they engage in pop culture,” says Noorani, who in a day can go from listening to bluegrass to hip-hop. “But I guess in D.C., you don’t meet very many real people.”