Bibles, Badges & Business

by Adrienne Faraci

The immigration debate isn’t about policy — it’s about the culture and values that make America what it is
A worker passes out American flags during a naturalization ceremony held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Los Angeles, California, on February 15, 2017. That day, 6,700 immigrants became U.S. citizens during two naturalization ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Is the United States locked in a state of intractable political paralysis? It sure can seem that way, especially when it comes to talking about the 11 million undocumented immigrants that are — truth be told — part of the daily lives of almost every American. Immigration itself is a puzzlement. Give us your tired — or not? Roll out the welcome mat — or not? And who talks about immigration, when one can scream about it?

It is hard to imagine that a bright spot or two might exist somewhere in the vast cultural, political, and demographic landscapes of this country. Something that could reunite our disparate peoples around a common culture, a common identity, an all-encompassing embracing of what it means to be an American. Believe it or not, at one time, in the not too distant past, comprehensive immigration reform was one such vehicle, one such bright spot on the horizon.

In There Goes the Neighborhood (Prometheus Books, 2017), Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, seeks out that bright spot, some common ground. On his journey, this seasoned immigration advocate brings together the unlikeliest of bedfellows. From the halls of Mormon Utah to police departments in Arizona to agricultural businesses in Kentucky and Montana, Noorani discovers the personal and economic reasons that are uniting community leaders across the country in their push for immigration reform. It’s no longer a simple matter of “left versus right.” These are the people who are working on the ground in their communities, who see immigration reform as something that’s not only beneficial to the “neighborhood,” but even mandatory if the country is to become truly competitive again in the global marketplace. And then there is the issue of compassion — or lack thereof — in the current environment. The author believes that “Americans are an exceptional people because we learn from our past.” But do we?

Noorani speaks candidly about the issues surrounding comprehensive immigration reform, most notably the schism over exactly what it means — culturally — to be an American. Prejudice cannot be ignored. There is the very real fear of the “other.” Noorani writes:

We do an awful job of seeing the human potential in one another. We are quicker to dwell on differences than capitalize on similarities. We treat relationships as negotiations instead of collaborations. We seem more concerned with individual liberties than the common good.
The 45th president of the United States will lead a nation divided by an entirely new set of political norms. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are no longer topics of discussion for dark corners of the Internet. They are out in the open.

Putting aside the fear-mongering headlines and cable news hysterics that seem to be driving the story today, Noorani speaks with the men and women who are being directly affected by the lack of working mechanisms for legal immigration. Everyone agrees that the current immigration system is broken. New ideas, new strategies are called for. So, Noorani and the National Immigration Forum brought together religious leaders, law enforcement officials, and business leaders — all committed to promoting immigration reform as the key to advancing all of society, fully supporting the idea that the American dream should be attainable by all. And with that, an informal coalition was born: “Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform.” As Noorani notes, anyone hearing that messaging doesn’t have to trust every member of the coalition, they just had to trust one of the three Bs.

Noorani points out — perhaps too sanguinely — that the “fear of the other wasn’t necessarily the immigrant next door. It was the immigrant they’d never seen.” The real challenge with immigration reform is to redefine American identity as more inclusive, humanizing immigrants as neighbors and community members who live nearby and whose children attend school with your children. But Cecilia Muñoz, a former top official in the Obama administration, asked Noorani a question, and it nags: “[D]o we see each other as Americans?”

As we got closer to Election Day, I realized the cultural debate would not go away with one election. The emotions underlying these fears shift slowly, erratically, constantly reminding us of a past many hold dear.”
— Ali Noorani, There Goes the Neighborhood

Through his illuminating conversations and interviews with nearly 50 local and national leaders, Noorani shows how some cities and regions have reached common ground on immigration issues, making their communities a welcoming place for long-standing citizens and new arrivals alike. Other “neighborhoods” struggle to find a balance. Can people adapt to changing demographics for the good of the country? There are obvious growing pains as communities grapple with this notion of inclusivity for immigrants, but the “Bibles, Badges, and Business” brigade is proof that shared values can get us past the charged and often vitriolic rhetoric surrounding immigration reform. Is the United States going through a “national identity crisis,” as Noorani writes, a political realignment all too easily mistaken for a sea-to-shining-sea nervous breakdown? Perhaps. But all is not doom and gloom, as There Goes the Neighborhood captivatingly confirms.

Noorani often joked with friends that he didn’t want to write a “smart” book (data, policy, yadda yadda). But he did: his first book is not only smart, it is insightful, personal, heartfelt, and hopeful.

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Ali Noorani | There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration | 319 pp. | 2017 | ISBN 978–1–63388–307–9 | More about this book

Adrienne Faraci is manager of digital campaigns and special initiatives, Carnegie Corporation of New York.