Ali Noorani: The humans at the center of the US immigration debate

Recorded atNovember 04, 2021
Duration (min:sec)12:00
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute171.17 medium
Readability (FK)47.06 difficult
SpeakerAli Noorani

Official TED page for this talk


How does a nation reconcile when its identity is at odds with its policies? Ali Noorani traces the arc of the US immigration debate to show a safer and more compassionate way forward, highlighting why centering human dignity creates lasting bonds and healthier communities.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 Coming out of the bright Texas sunshine, my eyes squinted under the harsh fluorescent lights.
200:11 There were gray rubber bucket seats bolted to the ground, white vinyl tiles, cinder block walls.
300:19 We walked through the metal detector and gave our IDs to the guard, and we put our cell phones in lockers.
400:28 Another guard came and escorted us down a hallway into a small courtroom.
500:34 In the gallery on the right, in the front rows was a group of men wearing orange jumpsuits and wearing bright Crocs.
600:43 On the left side of the gallery, in the front was a smaller group of women.
700:48 Same orange jumpsuits, same Crocs.
800:51 Our small delegation took up the back two rows of the immigration court at the El Paso immigrant detention facility.
901:02 On the bench to the left and the right of the judge was a clerk and an interpreter.
1001:09 Coming out from the bench a few feet down was a table, perpendicular.
1101:15 On the right side of the table would sit an attorney representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
1201:21 On the left side of the table, if the detainee had representation, would sit their attorney.
1301:28 At the end of the table, facing the judge would be the detainee.
1401:33 Often, most times wearing translation headphones, speaking into a thin microphone.
1501:40 The judge, for every single case, would, in essence, read the very same instructions.
1601:45 Describing the process, what would come next, what to expect.
1701:51 He made sure that if the immigrants had any questions, they were answered, but they were also able to explain their side of the case.
1802:02 The attorney with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, if the detainee had representation, would pay close attention.
1902:09 And she would make the case of the government much more forcefully if there was representation.
2002:17 Every single case that morning was either delayed or denied.
2102:22 Then a young woman came and sat at the end of the table, facing the judge in front of the thin microphone, wearing the orange jumpsuit and the Crocs.
2202:33 The judge, leaning forward, flipped through the case file, asked some clarifying questions, looked down at the young woman.
2302:43 And she explained with a poise and a clarity that other detainees didn't have, what her situation was.
2402:51 She had fled political violence in Nicaragua.
2502:55 The judge turned to the attorney representing Immigration Enforcement.
2602:58 And the attorney, sensing the power of the case but also the poise of the young woman spoke very loudly and very aggressively.
2703:07 And she accused this young woman of being a part of a "caravan" that, in her words, stormed Mexico's southern border and put policemen and babies in harm's way.
2803:19 And she angrily cited provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act and urged the judge to deny bond.
2903:27 In the face of this onslaught, this young woman, all this being translated into her headphones, was calm.
3003:34 And she answered those accusations and those concerns.
3103:39 And she told the judge, "I fled political violence in Nicaragua."
3203:46 And then her voice rose and she leaned forward into the microphone and she said, "I have been detained for six months, and I left Nicaragua long before the caravans began.
3304:00 And the one thing that I want to do," she said, as she was leaning forward, "is to be with my family."
3404:05 The immigration attorney looked down.
3504:09 The judge, for the first time that morning, leaned back.
3604:14 He flipped through the file, asked a few more questions, and he granted this young woman a bond of 5,000 dollars.
3704:22 This young woman, who had been treated like a criminal by our immigration system, who was afforded no legal representation, who was unfairly accused of violence by the United States government, broke down in tears.
3804:36 And so did we.
3904:38 Because, look, no migrant wants to leave their home.
4004:42 But because of violence, corruption, poverty, climate change, record numbers of migrants are leaving their homes.
4104:51 But they're leaving with dignity.
4204:54 And whether it's a dangerous journey from Nicaragua to El Paso, from Haiti to Del Rio, or from Syria to Twin Falls, they are fighting at every step of the way to maintain their dignity.
4305:07 Until they reach the United States border.
4405:09 Because as I witnessed in that courtroom in El Paso, it's our immigration system that strips the dignity from migrants.
4505:18 So through our years of work at the National Immigration Forum, through our work in conservative communities with pastors, police chiefs and business owners, we have come to believe very strongly that the reconciliation of our nation of immigrants does not begin in Washington, DC.
4605:35 The reconciliation of our nation of immigrants begins in communities across the country.
4705:42 Because that is the only way that we restore the dignity of the immigrants and the dignity of the country.
4805:48 So let me tell you about Storm Lake, Iowa.
4905:51 In 1989, two people started a journey that eventually took them to Storm Lake.
5005:56 It's a small meat-processing town in the northwestern part of the state.
5106:01 Maria Ramos at this time is 12 years old.
5206:04 Her parents told her and her sisters that they are taking them to a beautiful place, and they're excited to leave their small village outside of Puerto Vallarta for the very first time.
5306:19 But it's a dangerous, and as she told me, it's a sad and overwhelming journey.
5406:24 There are multiple times where they're told to hide.
5506:26 There are multiple times when they're almost discovered by the authorities.
5606:30 Because for Maria Ramos and her family, crossing borders meant that they crossed the US-Mexico border in 1989 by foot.
5706:39 2,000 miles later, and multiple vehicles, they finally made it to Northern California.
5806:45 In 1989, Mark Prosser left East St. Louis to drive 500 miles to Storm Lake, Iowa, where he began a 30-year-career as the chief of police.
5906:58 Now, in the 80s and the 90s, Storm Lake is changing dramatically.
6007:03 There are two large meat-processing plants that are providing 75 percent of the region's jobs.
6107:09 That means that there is a large Laotian population, there's a large Vietnamese population, and there's a fast growing Latino population.
6207:18 In the early 90s, in fact, Maria Ramos moves to Storm Lake to be with her soon to be husband, who works in one of those facilities, and soon, Maria Ramos is a young, undocumented mother in Storm Lake.
6307:31 In 1996, seeing how the tension is building in Storm Lake and how these populations in these communities are starting to rub up against each other, Patrick Buchanan brings his presidential campaign to Storm Lake.
6407:45 And the nativist ire that comes with Patrick Buchanan.
6507:49 Lo and behold, three months later, Immigration Enforcement raids one of these facilities.
6607:56 Maria Ramos, remember, an undocumented mother, her husband detained at one of these facilities, goes into hiding.
6708:04 Chief Mark Prosser, seeing how the immigrant community of Storm Lake is treated, penned like cattle, as the local newspaper editor told me, vowed never to work with Immigration Enforcement again.
6808:18 But regardless, what's happened is that Storm Lake is suddenly the middle of the nation's immigration debate.
6908:23 And the leadership of Storm Lake is presented with a very clear choice.
7008:27 They can go down the path that Patrick Buchanan gave them, to nativism and fear and hate.
7108:33 Or they can try to find a path towards reconciliation and dignity.
7208:37 Chief Mark Prosser, to a large degree, led the effort to organize leadership of the town to go across the town, the county, the state, the country, and make the case that Storm Lake was safer, it was growing, it was thriving because of immigrants and immigration.
7308:56 And the other piece of this that's so remarkable, is that new leaders started to emerge in Storm Lake over this period of time.
7409:02 In fact, it was Maria Ramos.
7509:05 In 2019, Maria Ramos decides she's going to run for Storm Lake City Council.
7609:12 And she wins.
7709:13 And she's supported by Mark Prosser and so many others from Storm Lake who've been fighting for immigrants and immigration over these decades.
7809:20 As Maria told the local paper, "We needed woman representation and what's better than a Latina woman?" (Laughter)
7909:28 And as I was sitting with her, she told me, "I would not be able to do what I do if I had stayed in Mexico.
8009:34 So I needed to step up and do something good for this country."
8109:40 Which ultimately is my message today.
8209:43 We all need to step up and do something good for this country.
8309:46 Because our character as individuals, our character as a nation, is determined to such a large extent by the way that we treat immigrants and refugees, regardless of their legal status.
8409:57 So together as a community, we need to bring the nation together around an immigration system that provides a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
8510:05 So just like Maria Ramos can fully own the American dream as a US citizen, so can the other 11 million undocumented immigrants.
8610:12 We need to bring the nation together around a legal immigration system that provides pathways for legal entry so that families that follow the Ramos family don't have to pay cartels.
8710:24 And yes, we as a nation need to come together around an enforcement system that keeps us safe and secure but treats people compassionately.
8810:32 The policy questions at their core are easy, they're simple, straightforward.
8910:36 Reconciling our communities, our culture, our politics, are more difficult.
9010:43 But what we've seen across the country is that across religion, across race, ethnicity, across politics, across gender, people are doing this work, and it is heroic.
9110:54 In Twin Falls, Idaho, you have conservative dairymen working with immigrants and refugees, some from Syria, to convene pastors, police chiefs and business owners to create a unity alliance around immigration in conservative southern Idaho.
9211:10 Across the country, you have conservative and moderate evangelical women working together to welcome Afghan families into their communities, into their churches.
9311:19 But more than that, these women are sitting together to return to their Bible and ask themselves the question, "How do I truly welcome this stranger?"
9411:31 In the past, I would have said that these are unlikely allies, you know, working together for immigrant justice.
9511:36 But what I've seen over the last ten years through our work, what we do on a day-to-day basis, leads me to believe that this is slowly but surely becoming the norm.
9611:47 Because as my friend Ai-jen Poo, who founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told me, she said that there are no unlikely allies in the stories of human dignity.
9711:59 Thank you.
9812:00 (Applause)