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The Nation's Current Debate Over Immigration Goes Beyond Politics

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A mural on the Mexican side of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in the city of Heroica Nogales.
Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr Creative Commons
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0508noorani.mp3

Immigration advocate Ali Noorani writes in his new book, "There Goes The Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice And Meet The Challenges Of American Immigration" that the nation's current debate over immigration isn't just a political issue or an economic issue or a security issue — it's a cultural one.

That's why Noorani believes people pushing for reform should address it on those grounds. He joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the book and the state of the national immigration debate.

Selections from his interview are below.

On fighting a "cultural" war rather than a political one

"For years, those of us in the immigrant rights movement have talked about this issue from a political perspective. We said, okay, let's register Latino voters, let's make sure they're getting to the polls and that we're winning elections, and that will get us to policy change. That's part of it, but while we're having a political conversation about these issues, the rest of the country is having a cultural conversation. They're looking at people coming in from around the world, they're wondering if their values are going to be changed, they're wondering how much their neighborhoods are going to be changed. So for us at the National Immigration Forum, we've tried to develop an understanding of what are those anxieties and fears that people are feeling and how do we address those fears in an honest and forthright way?"

On how to start conversations about immigration in communities

"What's happening across the country is immigrants are moving into neighborhoods and cities and towns where they never had been. So what's happening is the person who grew up socially conservative, politically conservative have come to know and love the José next door, but they're still afraid of the José one town over or one state over...

"What we've learned through the work over the last five years and the 60-odd interviews we did for the book is that ultimately somebody who is living in South Carolina, they're going to trust their pastor, their police chief or a business owner to help them through this conversation. So we've developed an amazing set of relationships with evangelical leadership on the national and local level, with law enforcement, police chiefs, and sheriffs, Republicans and Democrats, [and] business owners from a farmer to a manufacturer. They all have a certain type of influence and trust to be able to say, 'you know what? From a faith perspective, this is why we welcome a stranger. From a law enforcement perspective, this is why we trust the immigrant community.' That's the kind of conversation that's happening."

On the arguments people make differentiating documented versus undocumented immigrants

"Before 1924, the United States really had no immigration system. So a lot of times we'll hear that [argument] from somebody whose family came at the end of the 20th century or early 1900s, late 1800s. That's the first point. The second point is the world is different today than it was then. We do need an immigration system that manages and regulates legal immigration — frankly, that's how you solve the illegal immigration problem — but ultimately, we need to help and deal with the people who are here, who are undocumented: make sure they're paying taxes, make sure they're learning English, make sure they pass a criminal background check so they can be a full contributing member of society. The status quo isn't working for anybody, except that crooked employer who's pushing down the wages of everybody."

To hear more from Ali Noorani, click the audio player above.

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