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Immigration expert says Idaho could show 'path to unity' in new book

The Perrine Bridge crosses the Snake River on the horizon.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
A chapter in "Crossing Borders" focuses on lessons Noorani learned about communities' reactions to national immigration debates.

Ali Noorani is a national expert on immigration. As the former President and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, his job often involved bringing unlikely groups to the same table to build support for immigration.

In his book "Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants," Noorani takes readers on a global journey, exploring the dominant forces of current migration patterns and how they intersect with communities in the U.S. where immigrants live and where refugees settle.

Noorani looks to the Magic Valley as an example of a community that he says weathered "a cultural storm" in the immigration debate, and he thinks local leaders' response to it offers lessons for other communities.

Noorani is in Idaho this month talking about his book. He is speaking at the Community Library in Ketchum on Thurs., June 16 at 6 p.m. alongside Zeze Rwasama, the director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Programs, and Bob Naerebout, the former executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association. That conversation will be available to view online.

South-central Idaho reporter Rachel Cohen spoke with Noorani about "Crossing Borders" and the chapter about the Magic Valley.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. About a quarter of the population of south-central Idaho identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Twin Falls is home to one of Idaho's three refugee resettlement programs. And while the groups are vital to the region's economy, the fraught debate over immigration casts a very long, wide shadow. As author Ali Noorani details in his new book. Boise State Public Radio's Rachel Cohen is here. Rachel, good morning.

Rachel Cohen: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: Who is Ali Noorani? And tell us about this book.

COHEN: Noorani is the former President and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for the value immigrants and immigration bring to our country. He's now a fellow at Arizona State University's Social Transformation Lab, and his book is called Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants. It came out in March, and it documents stories of the geopolitical battles over migration across the world, of people fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Honduras, and the communities in the US who receive them, where immigrants and refugees settle. And that includes Twin Falls.

So, I started off by asking him why he was interested in looking into what was happening in Idaho.

NOORANI: Well, I think Idaho really provides a shining example for the rest of the country in terms of how a state that is politically and socially conservative grapples with the questions and the challenges that come with immigration but arrives at a conclusion that is good for native-born Idahoans, as well as immigrants and refugees from around the world. And through the work of the National Immigration Forum, we began to develop very close partnerships, and I quite frankly developed really close friendships, with so many people in Idaho that I just thought it was really important to try to tell the story of how Idaho has welcomed immigrants and refugees in a time in our country where so many of us are polarized by this very topic.

COHEN: And fittingly, your chapter on the Magic Valley is called Path to Unity. Tell us a little bit about how this region fits into your vision for how communities respond to issues of immigration and refugee resettlement.

NOORANI: Well, as I was researching Crossing Borders, I found that in 2015, when we saw the Syrian refugee crisis really roil the politics of Europe, it was having an outsized impact in the United States, in spite of the fact that the Obama Administration then was allowing in hundreds of Syrian refugees, certainly not thousands or tens of thousands or whatever number opponents of immigration were claiming. And that debate really began to focus itself on the community of Twin Falls.

NOORANI: You saw Breitbart News, Infowars and others starting to, in essence, weaponize global migration to begin to divide and polarize this community of about 50,000 people. And what happened, as a result, is that all of these fears about immigration and refugees began to really undermine the safety and the sense of safety among the immigrant community there.

And what happens, as a result, is that the Idaho Dairymen partnered with the Catholic Church, evangelical churches, the LDS community, business leaders, law enforcement leaders to say, you know what, we have got to figure out how we're going to come together, and not necessarily talk about immigration or refugee policy, but more importantly, in many ways, tell a more constructive story about immigration in the Magic Valley. So that "path to unity" in southern Idaho and the Twin Falls region began with the crisis in Syria, but I think has resulted in really an important example that I think the rest of the country can learn from.

COHEN: Just zooming out a little bit, you have a not-insignificant portion of Americans believing the conspiracy theory known as the "great replacement," which essentially says nonwhite people are being brought to this country to replace white voters. How do you confront that stigma?

NOORANI: This throughline between the movement of people, the massive displacement of people, the conspiracy theories around nativism, nationalism, Christian nationalism, and now, like you said, the great replacement theory. But then, really, the way that those theories are mitigated is by creating opportunities for conservative leaders like a pastor, a dairyman, a police chief, and provide them ways to sit down with the communities that trust them and help answer those questions that have been put in people's minds by these conspiracy theories.

And as a result of the pressure and the support from the Dairymens Association, as well as the immigrant and the refugee communities here across the state, you have somebody like Congressman Mike Simpson who has really emerged as one of the critical champions for immigration reform. We're seeing conservative leadership coming from Idaho influencing other conservative leadership across the country so that slowly but surely a new consensus on American immigration is emerging. And I think that it's counterintuitive to think about that as very exciting when, again, our nation is so divided.

COHEN: Is there a conversation or moment you had in Idaho that sticks with you?

NOORANI: You know, I would say it was the first time I met Zeze Rwasama who is the coordinator of the refugee program of the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. He himself is a refugee from the Congo and Rwanda. But what sticks in my mind most is when he shared with me that as he saw the pressure from outside of Twin Falls increasing on his refugee program, he took it upon himself, an African refugee who believed deeply in everything that America can be, to go to all the small towns around Twin Falls and sit down with community leaders and help them understand the importance of the refugee resettlement program.

And it was just remarkable because he believed in his program so strongly. And this was before the dairymen and before so many others kind of stood alongside him that he took it upon himself to say, you know what, I'm going to sit down with these communities who look nothing like me, who have had very different experiences and quite frankly, may even be afraid of me. And it's that kind of courage that I think is not only important for the immigrant and the refugee community, but it's also important for the country overall.

COHEN: Ali Noorani, thank you so much for joining us.

NOORANI: Thank you so much, Rachel.

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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