Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX, in collaboration with WGBH Radio in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In his new book Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, Ali Noorani uses the stories of people and families fleeing their homes in different parts of the world because of violence, corruption, poverty, or climate change. He uses his stories to highlight the difficulties they face as they arrive at the doorstep of the United States and the failures of American institutions to meet the needs of so many of these migrants.
Reading this book is gut-wrenching. Noorani helps the reader to go beyond partisan politics and understand the humanity of people fleeing their homes. Noorani told me a bit about his decision to combine these personal stories, along with the discussion of structural issues in our political and immigration system.
Ali Noorani: What became really clear is that folks were incredibly proud of their country and their community, but there were so many things swirling around them as I laid out that were forcing them to make perfectly natural and rational decisions to try to do better for their families and most specifically for their children. I felt that what I wanted to do with this book is to present the complexities of those factors, but also the pride that Carlos, his wife showed me in that conversation on that hillside, the pride in what they had built on their little farm, the pride that they have in their country.
Again, all these things that were happening around them, and some of them are systemic issues that were forcing them to make these decisions and walking into immigration systems that were completely incapable of meeting the moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Among those important issues that are challenging and I think it's also so important you point out people would have a preference overall for staying in their nations with their families and their communities but are displaced for a wide variety of reasons. Walk us through some of the reasons that human migrations occur across the globe.
Ali Noorani: When we open the newspaper today or watching MSNBC or whatever news show or listening to NPR, every single day, there is another story of migration, whether it's from Central America, from Syria, or the mass migration that we're seeing in from Ukraine, fleeing an invasion, or even what we saw in Afghanistan last summer. These migrations, by and large, are created by the same three or four factors.
One is conflict or war that leads to extreme violence. Second will be corruption where national governments or local governments are unable to ensure the rule of law and just a basic quality of life. The third factor that is coming up more and more is poverty that is exacerbated by a changing climate that is pushing people away into situations of food insecurity, of not being able to farm the land that they grew up on.
There's combinations of poverty, of conflict, of corruption. They all wind together to lead folks to be displaced either internally or externally. These days there are well over 84 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced, and I don't even think that number includes the over 3 million that have had to flee Ukraine in just over the last four weeks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As they flee, they keep meeting these borders, you talk about people being pressed against these borders. Talk to me about the decisions that so many nations, but maybe even start here in the US, but also, as you point out in Western Europe, to close the doors to those who are migrating for these broad structural reasons.
Ali Noorani: Well, as migration has increased, as external displacement of populations has increased, what you've seen from United States much less the European Union is an effort to harden borders. Under the Trump administration, you saw that hardening taking place, both the border wall that Trump would talk about incessantly, but also through policies such as a family separation policy that he put in place in 2018 or the efforts to force migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are being processed or even externalizing the US Mexico border, and Trump really tried to hold foreign aid to Mexico or to Central America over their heads until they were to harden their southern borders.
In Europe, what we saw really beginning with the Syrian refugee crisis in 2013 is that Viktor Orban in Hungary weaponized the migration of Syrian refugees. He began to claim loudly that it was his job to keep you a Christian and that those who are coming from Syria were of another religion. The European Union initially tried to resist the direction that Orban was pulling them, but by the middle of 2016, they were putting in place agreements with Turkey, and then with Libya so that their borders were really the first hard obstacle, and oftentimes very deadly obstacle that migrants had to overcome just to seek protection in the European Union.
Western governments have really failed to establish systems that protect people that allow people to go through a fair and equitable process to seek protection, and as a result, I think around the world, the only ones that are winning are the cartels, particularly in the case of the United States, we've outsourced our immigration system to the cartels. They're the ones who are determining who gets to the border and who does not.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, say more about that because that was such a stunning aspect of the text. In what way have we outsourced to the cartels?
Ali Noorani: It actually goes back to the 1990s, where we first saw the mass incarceration. What happened, in particular, in California is that jails became places where Central American youth, they all suddenly got steeped in a gang culture, then they were deported because they were undocumented. They took that gang culture back to Central America and that's how you saw MS-13 start to expand from its beginning in jails in Southern California, but then really starting to thrive in the worst way possible in Central America. What that means right now, today, if you are a taxi driver in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, Honduras, you have to pay rent to the local gang.
If you can't pay rent or bribe to a local gang, they will threaten to kill you or your family, so you pay a coyote, part of another gang to get you out of San Pedro Sula, out of Honduras, and then you get to the US-Mexico border. Oftentimes, you're then kidnapped and held for ransom until you pay another gang to actually allow you to cross the border and seek protection in United States and present to Border Patrol just to ask for asylum. The cartels have developed this very intricate web of coyotes, human smugglers up and down Latin America because we as a country do not have a functioning immigration system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Go back for a moment to Western Europe and to the keeping the EU Christian, which, again, I think in reading this, even as I've got one eye on the coverage of the crisis coming out of Ukraine, and so many migrants are flooding West, and then being reminded of this very recent history relative to Syria. On the one hand, it does seem to reinforce what you're arguing, what you've described as a kind of less-- There's no longer even a pretense of the migration question being about jobs and the economy, it is really a unfettered Christian nationalism.
On the one hand, this more open response to Ukrainians is consistent with this. On the other hand, I'm wondering if in shifting and softening that anxiety about migration, if this crisis might also shift globally the ways that we think about the responsibilities of preparing for and welcoming migrants.
Ali Noorani: I think that's a really, really important point because remember, if we were having this conversation back in August of last year, we would be talking about the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan allies, where quite frankly, the Biden administration failed to anticipate how the American public, by and large, led by the veterans' community would not only work incredibly hard on evacuation but continues to this day to work and to welcome African families and communities across the country.
Every day there are these amazing stories of this happening, so that happens in August of last year. In September of last year, you have 10,000 or 15,000 Haitians presenting in Del Rio, Texas ethnic protection. The Biden administration summarily turns most of them around and returns them to Haiti, and now you see Ukraine. I think that the American public, much less the world, is realizing that time and again, our systems are unable to meet this moment. The thing is that our current refugee resettlement system was designed after World War II.
In essence, the last kind of significant migration of refugees out of Europe, and we're beginning to see something very, very similar and sadly similar coming out of Ukraine, so does the European Union, does the United States say, ''Okay, we've got to figure out how we are doing this better." I think there's a lot of pressure and a lot of anger, righteous anger, directed at the administration of the way that we are welcoming Ukrainians, but say, not Haitians, and there is an element of race here. I do think that instead of shaming our neighbors, our allies, world leaders, we have to see this as an opportunity to invite people to a larger conversation about the future of immigration systems, much less refugee systems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk a bit about the politics of this. You really walkthrough, and again, remind us that not only the immigration policy and immigration reform was bipartisan but that it was also a full chromate-- Excuse me, there was also a wedge in the context of Republican primary politics, as you remind us of the discourse between Jeb and President Trump.
Ali Noorani: We all talk about how Trump came down the golden escalator in June of 2015 and claimed that Mexico was sending the United States rapists, but I don't think we often see where that came from much less how it was really weaponized over the course of not just the 2016 election, but really over the course of the Trump administration. Jeb Bush, the Bush family overall, has always been very, very positive and compassionate when it comes to questions of immigration. He said, I think it was in 2014, that to cross the border illegally was an act of love because a person was making a decision to protect their family.
Trump, approximately a year later threw that back at Bush. What I found really interesting and quite frankly very scary as I was going through this project is to see how the alt-right was growing on a parallel path and how those individuals, by and large, young White men in white polo shirts and khakis, were seeing how immigration was an organizing point and a radicalizing point among a large part of society or growing part of American society and how Charlottesville in 2017 was the first time that all of us saw the hatred with which they acted, but then, very quickly over the course of just really a few years, we went from the alt-rights to populism, to nationalism, to Christian nationalism, to the January 6th insurrection. Immigration and anti-immigration rhetoric is a consistent through-line to all those movements.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you see solutions? Do you see hope in these pieces that you have drawn out for us?
Ali Noorani: I absolutely do. I think that change ultimately comes from within. In fact, a lot of people ask me, "Why is the subtitle of this book The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants?" Because what I found is that the reconciliation of a nation of immigrants begins with the reconciliation of communities. I did a lot of work and listening and reporting to learn how evangelical America, in particular, conservative evangelical women are grappling with these questions. How they are creating new in-groups that are taking a more constructive and compassionate approach to immigration, but they're not being asked to change how they think about their faith or how they think about their politics.
Rather, these new angles are providing a different way to think about immigration and what it truly means to welcome the stranger. I found hope in Twin Falls, Idaho, and the role of conservative dairymen partnering with immigrants and refugees to push back against Breitbart News and InfoWars. I found hope in Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of 14,000 people in Northwest Iowa that was represented by Congressman Steve King, where you have conservative native-born Iowans saying, "You know what? Our town is thriving because of immigrants. We're going to make sure that they fully own the American dream." I think that there is a lot of hope to be found in the US. I think we just have to do the work to understand how those stories come together at the local level.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, you're stepping down from the National Forum after more than a decade of service. What's next for you?
Ali Noorani: That's a very, very good question. I've always told people that what comes after this job is just a big midlife crisis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then we had a whole pandemic to help you along with that, so yes.
Ali Noorani: The National Immigration Forum is just such a special group of board members, of staff, who are doing such innovative work. I may be biased but I really truly believe that the forum is doing work on immigration that nobody else is doing and that frankly a lot of other movements can learn lessons from. I don't know what comes next for me. I am forever going to cherish my time with the forum and I really look forward to celebrating their work for years to come.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ali Noorani is author of Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants. Thanks for joining The Takeaway.
Ali Noorani: Thank you so much.
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