While diving into research for his book, There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Migration, immigration activist Ali Noorani spent a whole summer talking to more than 60 faith, law enforcement, and business leaders – a majority of whom were politically or socially conservative – on the topic of immigration.
What he found might be surprising to many, considering the current political climate in Washington, D.C., the recent talks of possibly upending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Texas' efforts to implement SB 4, the so-called "sanctuary cities" law.
"What I've learned through the research is that the immigration debate is not about politics and policy, rather it's about culture and values," Noorani said Thursday during a luncheon at Frost Bank's Plaza Club, hosted by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio and the Consulate General of Mexico in San Antonio. "When an immigrant moves into somebody's community, the first question they ask is, 'Is my culture going to change, are my values going to change, and is my neighborhood going to change?'"
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Noorani serves as executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization that promotes the value of immigrants and immigration. He's made it a point to reach out to conservative allies with a more moderate view on immigration enforcement. It is these individuals, he said, that need to pick up the phone and call their representatives to express their support for immigrants.
"I think it's incredibly important that the immigrant community continues to speak to the economic and social benefits that they bring to the country, but I do think that conservative and moderate Americans are looking for a different way forward on this issue," Noorani told reporters before the luncheon. "I think they are worried that the José and the Muhammad that they have come to know and respect is going to be deported. I think they are worried about what that means for their family, their economy. There's an active debate in conservative America on how to proceed on this. Not everybody is following Donald Trump on this."
Noorani believes that the current administration under President Donald Trump has changed the immigration narrative so dramatically that most Americans are questioning the overall value that immigrants bring to the nation. Simultaneously, he believes they are caught in an ideological conflict.
"On one end is the desire to live in a nation of laws, and on the other end is a desire to live in a nation and a community that is welcoming," he said. "How do we help Americans navigate that tension? I don't think you ever resolve that tension, but it can be navigated."
Listening to trusted leaders in the community, such as pastors in local congregations, police chiefs, or local business owners, is a way to localize the issue and navigate that tension, Noorani said. That, in turn, helps individuals humanize the consequences of harsh immigration policies.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that DACA, a program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation, might be in jeopardy.
"DACA protects nearly 800,000 people from deportation and allows them to contribute to the economy," Noorani said. Most importantly, it provided a window for Americans to realize that "their childhood best friend, the family at church one pew over... or the family down the street is undocumented. These are all people that they've come to know and love, and the American public can't un-remember that."
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's threat to sue the Trump administration should it fail to revoke the memo that created DACA, has the potential to undermine the economy, Noorani said, and SB 4's possible implementation also will lead to a "massive destabilization of the workforce."
SB 4, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7 and is slated to go into effect Sept. 1, would punish police chiefs, local leaders, and constables who don't cooperate with federal immigration agents or honor detainers in local jails. It would also allow law enforcement officers to question an individual's immigration status during arrest and detainment.
The City of San Antonio and Bexar County are part of a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction meant to block the law from going into effect. While lawyers for the State and the U.S. Department of Justice argue that the law would merely establish a standard of cooperation with immigration officers, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the suit said it would lead to racial profiling and force the immigrant community into hiding.
"I think from the community's perspective, it's a terrifying moment because while there are a large number of really really good police officers and deputies out there, there will be some bad actors who are going to take advantage of SB 4 to profile the community, and that makes us all a lot less safe," Noorani said.
"If it's the job of the DHS to keep our country safe, there are much smarter ways to do this. Along the border, instead of spending billions of dollars on a wall, let's eliminate the carrizo cane [invasive plant] in the river, let's invest in ports of entry. Instead of making every undocumented immigrant a priority, let's make sure we are focusing our valuable local law enforcement resources on actual public safety threats. I just thought that the policy would be smarter coming out of DHS, given Secretary Kelly's history."