Flash back to this June: the Gang of Eight had just passed a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate with a strong 68-32 majority, and it seemed like President Obama was going to have the bill on his desk by the end of the summer.
It’s now November, and we still don’t have any comprehensive immigration legislation on the books. Members of congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns that the 2014 midterm elections will make already hesitant Republican representatives even less likely to take a chance on immigration reform.
Looking out at the thorny political horizons of these last months of 2013 and beyond, many Americans have sighed and shelved their hopes for immigration reform indefinitely. But while most see the sand quickly draining from the immigration hourglass, Ali Noorani is ready to turn our perspective upside-down.
As Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, Noorani is one of the nation’s most outspoken pro-immigration advocates. His Washington, D.C.-based organization has been at the center of every major U.S. immigration debate since its founding in 1982. Under Noorani’s leadership since 2008, the Forum works closely with business, law enforcement, faith and immigrant leadership across the country.
Image courtesy of YouTube, "Ali Noorani: Advice to Undocumented Youth"
Noorani explained to PolicyMic Fellow Gabe Grand why the immigration reform effort is not dead, but in fact alive and well.
Gabe Grand: You’re the son of Pakistani immigrants. Does your personal heritage have an impact on the way you view immigration?
Ali Noorani: Absolutely. As a person whose family immigrated here, I know that this country has provided us with an incredible amount of opportunity. I want to make sure that America continues to benefit from the value of immigrants and immigration.
What new perspective do millennials bring to the immigration debate?
When you talk to younger people across the country, they all know immigrants personally. Many of them have, in fact, come to know people who are undocumented. That experience is very personal. For millennials, the immigration reform debate is not a policy conversation; it’s a conversation about their friends, their schoolmates, and even their co-workers. When there’s a policy debate about a person you see every day, you care about it more.
This past Fall, Congress was occupied with urgent issues like Syria, budget issues, the debt ceiling, the government shutdown. Is immigration also a time-sensitive issue?
I think it’s incredibly time-sensitive in terms of the survival of the Republican party. The fact is, an increasing number of House Republicans are representing very diverse districts. Senate Republicans see their states changing. If the GOP wants to hang drapes in the White House again, they’re going to have to get behind immigration reform.
The deadline here is that election every two years, where Republicans are making a case not only to Latino voters, but also to their base. There’s a fast-growing number of social and fiscal conservatives across the country who want to see immigration reform, fast.
What would you say to millennials who are wondering where the momentum behind this past summer’s Senate immigration bill went?
Two things here: I think we have to remember that Congress operates in two-year sessions. That Senate bill is good to go until December 31, 2014. The second thing is that the House of Representatives has actually passed five bills out of committee. So by no means are we dead in the water or starting from scratch in the House… Republican leadership in the House will continue to feel an enormous amount of pressure from both the left and the right to move immigration reform.
Some House Republicans—Tea Partiers in particular—have been resistant to immigration reform.
Our sense is that there is a clear majority of House Republicans who want to pass immigration reform. The problem is that they haven’t landed on a solution of how to do it and when to do it. Only the folks like Steve King (R-IA) and the “hell no” caucus, they’re the only ones saying, “This isn’t going to happen.” And their numbers are actually quite small.
This election cycle, many congressional representatives will fall back on secure and sometimes gerrymandered districts. Who's going to put pressure on those representatives?
Within the Evangelical community, we are seeing pastors and congregants in very homogeneous districts say, “We want immigration reform to be passed.” The Evangelical Immigration Table has really changed the conversation amongst Evangelicals across the country.
Where is that motivation coming from?
For them, number one, it’s coming from scripture. When Evangelicals look to the Bible, one of the key tenets is to welcome the stranger.
What about conservative Christian groups like Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration that use the Bible as grounds to call for a ban on Muslim immigrants?
By no means am I a Biblical scholar, but one thing that I do know about that group is that it’s led by four people and they have a very small number of followers. The Evangelical Immigration Table… is ten* of the nation’s largest Evangelical organizations. Their statement of principles has been signed by nearly 200 Evangelical leaders across the country. They have developed a community of what they call “prayer partners” of over 180,000 people. Then you’ve got the entire Catholic church, which has relied on the Bible for guidance on the need for immigration reform for decades. I think [Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration] is a fringe extremist group that doesn’t represent any large part of the Evangelical community.
(*Editor’s note: the Evangelical Immigration Table is currently composed of 11 member organizations, according to the group’s website.)
Let’s talk about the 2014 midterm elections. Recently, GOP Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) said of immigration in the House, “If we can’t get it done by early next year, then it’s clearly dead.” Does immigration reform have a deadline once primaries start?
The deadline for immigration reform is December 31, 2014. The House is going to have multiple opportunities to act [before that date]. Things are moving so quickly in DC, and Congress is pretty astounding for its lack of short-term memory. (Laughing) Syria, the shutdown… Congress has gotten all riled up about [these issues], and then they kind of keep moving on. So for us, it’s really just a matter of continuing to build the pressure from all these different perspectives and keeping things moving.
Is the goal, then, to get the Senate bill in its current form passed by December 31 of next year?
The House is going to have its own process. We’re going to end up somewhere between whatever the House passes, and what the Senate has passed.
The Senate bill in its current form is 1200 pages long, and some of the Senators who voted on the bill this summer have said that they didn’t have time to read the whole thing. Could the bill’s size pose problems later down the line?
First of all, if you were to go back and take a look at the number of weeks between introduction and passage, there was more than enough time to read and dissect that bill. When Senator Grassley (R-IA) claims that he has not had time to dissect the bill, and then—in literally the same paragraph—offers very specific amendments to the bill… I just think that’s rather disingenuous.
What about the Corker-Hoeven border security amendment? Is it fair for Senators to claim that they were rushed into voting on that measure?
It was actually not that long of an amendment. This is what we elected guys to do: to read bills and vote on them. This was a small amendment, and each office has how many staff? If a Senator and their staff are actually unable to do their job, then they might want to explore other career options. (Laughs)
The Corker-Hoeven amendment allocates tens of billions of dollars to border security. It calls for the doubling of border security agents, 700 miles of new fence along the US-Mexico border, and the implementation of high-tech border surveillance devices like drones and thermal imaging cameras.
In our opinion, the Corker-Hoeven amendment was overkill.
Was it a concession?
I mean, it was a negotiation. Both sides compromised.
There’s been a lot of talk in the House about a “piecemeal” approach to immigration reform. How does that method compare to the comprehensive legislation that the Senate has passed?
There are a bunch of different ways that the House can pass immigration reform. Whether it’s taking up discreet pieces or something larger. It’s really up to John Boehner (R-OH) to make that decision to bring a bill to the floor. And the fact is that a majority of his conference are ready to move. There’s no other issue that has the depth of support amongst both Republicans and Democrats—not only on the Hill, but, more importantly, across the country... It’s just a matter of reaching that tipping point.