What activists missed in their fight to legalize undocumented immigrants

Ali Noorani in his Washington office.
Ali Noorani in his Washington office. Cortesía

When Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father, became America’s first black President and when Sen. Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants, helped write bipartisan immigration reform legislation, immigrant rights activists were convinced legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants was a done deal.

They were wrong.

Ali Noorani’s new book “There Goes the Neighborhood” shows that the activists’ perception of imminent success was an illusion because they missed the broader picture of an angry populace that eventually helped elect Donald Trump as president — largely on his promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

Noorani, head of the Washington-based immigrant rights group National Immigration Forum, will be at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m. Thursday to talk about “There Goes the Neighborhood.”

“While we were having a political debate,” Noorani said in an interview, “the rest of the country was having a cultural conversation. What I tried to do is tell the story of folks across the country who are grappling with these questions, not in a political way, but in a way based on their values and who they are.”

“There Goes the Neighborhood” is a pithy, fast-paced and suspenseful account about what went wrong with immigration reform. National in scope, Noorani’s account is full of vignettes, interviews and stories about people who backed or opposed efforts — ultimately doomed — to change immigration law with a view to giving a majority of the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the country a path to citizenship.

It features personalities like Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, a champion of immigration reform; and opponents such as Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, a foe of immigration reform.

An early chapter is about Noorani, born in Santa Cruz, California, in 1973. His parents left Pakistan in 1971. Noorani grew up in Salinas and eventually wound up in Boston where he became a community organizer and an immigrant rights advocate as executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

As Obama won his first term in 2008, Noorani took over the National Immigration Forum replacing longtime leader Frank Sharry who for 16 years built the group — founded in 1982 — into an organization of heft, capable of influencing the debate on immigration.

The first chapter, titled “Elections Matter... Culture Matters More,” provides the setting for Noorani’s argument that immigrant rights groups failed to detect and interpret correctly the growing anger in middle and rural America about immigration reform and would have fared better had they followed the playbook of organizations that pushed increased rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or LGBT community.

The chapter recounts the fateful events of Dec. 18, 2010, that, to Noorani, help explain why the LGBT community won and the immigrant rights community lost.

On that same day, the Senate considered the DREAM Act bill that would have legalized the young immigrant students whose undocumented parents brought to the United States when they were children; and also a bill to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that barred gay and lesbian members of the armed forces from publicly expressing their sexual orientation.

But by the perennial end of the day, the DREAM Act bill failed, resulting in a major defeat for immigrant rights activists — but “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, handing a victory to the LGBT movement. Noorani attributed the different outcomes to the divergent strategies of the immigrant movement and the LGBT movement.

“They respected military culture, understood the public’s appreciation for the armed services, shared stories of impacted individuals, and developed a policy and political framework that established a consensus,” Noorani wrote. “In short, a powerful cultural strategy led to a powerful political strategy. We had attempted the reverse. We started with politics and backed into culture. And we lost.”

When Noorani traveled to Miami he got a glimpse of what the demographic future of the United Sates might be, not just a melting pot but also a living mosaic of multiple nationalities and races where immigrants of many nations outnumber native-born whites and blacks.

On any given day in Miami or Miami Beach, you might hear Creole, the language of Haiti and other Caribbean islands, Spanish from Latin America or Spain, Portuguese from Brazil or Papiamento from the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.

This may explain why Wenski speaks Creole and Spanish fluently. He is featured prominently in Noorani’s book. “Wenski immersed himself in his work with the Haitian and Cuban communities,” wrote Noorani. “He offered Mass at detention centers, visited Haiti, and quickly put himself on a unique career path within the U.S. Catholic Church.”

Noorani also highlights the role that the four young Dreamers from Latin America played in the immigration-reform debate when they walked from Miami to Washington in 2010 to draw attention to the plight of the undocumented.

“Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa and Juan Rodríguez left their homes in Miami on January 1, 2010, to walk 1,500 miles to the U.S. Capitol,” Noorani writes. “Their ‘Trail of Dreams’ took these four young people through communities across the Southeast, and they shared their stories with supporters and opponents alike in a region experiencing the tensions that came with some of the fastest growth in the foreign-born population.”

Noorani said immigration rights advocates should have followed the four Dreamers’ example because it was a bid to change culture, not politics.

“The Trail of Dreams was one of the first purely culture-changing strategies borne of the immigrant rights movement,” he wrote. “These youths were not working through organizations led by non-immigrants. They were inserting their own voices and own stories into the debate.”

While the Dreamers ultimately failed to change the debate, Noorani’s book says that terrorist attacks here and abroad altered the national mood and helped anti-immigrant forces advance their argument that foreign nationals are a threat to national security — now a cornerstone of Trump’s immigration policies.

But though the attacks in Boston and Paris in 2015 expanded anti-immigrant sentiments, Noorani actually traced the movement that propelled Trump to the presidency to Arizona where in 2010 state Republican Sen. Russell Pearce introduced a bill then simply known for its legislative number: SB1070.

It was a bill that eventually became known as the “show me your papers” law because it empowered police officers to ask foreign nationals to show documents that entitled them to be legally present in the United States.

“More simply.” Noorani wrote, “if a pastor was giving a ride to an undocumented immigrant from their church, the pastor would face state penalties.”

Though the Supreme Court eventually struck down the toughest parts of SB1070, the clause allowing cops for ask for papers remained. And the anger that spread the spirit of the law beyond Arizona set the stage for Trump’s triumph and the declined of the immigration reform movement.

Yet Noorani is convinced that eventually immigrants will prevail.

“A generation down the road,” Noorani said. “All these kids who are growing up together, who are of different races, different ethnicities and from different places, will continue and lead to stronger relationships.”

If You Go

Who: Ali Noorani

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 13

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables