Steven V. Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University and is the author of “From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America.”
Manpreet Tiwana is a Punjabi-speaking police officer in the farming community of Kerman, Calif. She describes her importance to the area’s many immigrant residents: “They found somebody who can communicate with them, and they can tell their issues to. They want to lay it out and tell me all their problems.”
Tiwana’s role goes far beyond listening to immigrant complaints, Ali Noorani writes in “There Goes the Neighborhood”: “Officer Tiwana’s service humanized law enforcement for her community, and humanized South Asians for the broader community. She was a bridge between both worlds.”
This example embodies the core argument advanced by Noorani, a child of Pakistani immigrants who heads the National Immigration Forum, an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights. Often locals worry that newcomers will take their jobs. But fear of foreigners is rooted in “cultural anxiety,” not just economic anxiety, Noorani stresses. Foes of immigration worry about losing their identities, not just their incomes.
Noorani’s answer is to draw on institutions such as the police, and people like Tiwana, to build bridges that connect communities, not walls that divide them. In analyzing President Trump’s exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment during the 2016 election, the author writes: “The fear of the other wasn’t necessarily the immigrant next door. It was the immigrant they’d never seen.”
Noorani is not an accomplished writer. His prose lacks flavor, and his narrative lacks structure. This is sort of a memoir, sort of a journal, sort of a policy prescription. But his message is strong and valid.
“Right now, too many Americans — and media — assume, ‘There goes the neighborhood’ when immigrants become a part of their communities,” he writes. “Until conservative white America sees the cultural (and demographic) changes in their neighborhoods as a net positive to their lives, this will remain the assumption and the identity wars will only worsen.”
In Noorani’s view, three kinds of institutions are best suited to demonstrate the benefits of immigration: law enforcement agencies, faith communities and commercial enterprises. His organization has formed a coalition called Bibles, Badges and Businesses for Immigration Reform, and he tours the country discovering examples that make his point.
Take Margaret Mims, the first female sheriff of Fresno County in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural area that has attracted immigrant families for generations. Today Laotians, Punjabis and Hispanics have joined the previous groups — Basques and Italians, Slavs and Armenians — and she has made it a priority to hire officers who reflect this diversity.
Every citizen is safer, she argues, if all residents have confidence in their police and cooperate with them. If immigrants are “afraid of law enforcement,” Mims says, “they can’t thrive, having to look over their shoulder all the time [and] wondering if they are going to be deported.”
In Logansport, Ind., a Trump stronghold, Noorani profiles the Rev. Zach Szmara, who took over a failing church filled with “a few little old ladies,” renamed it Bridge Community Church and reached out to the area’s growing Hispanic population.
The church provided the only legal clinic for immigrants within 50 miles, and the pews started filling up. Today three flags, American, Mexican and Guatemalan, adorn the church’s back wall, and Szmara says, “The more we got to know people who were different than us, the more we realized it was God’s heart.”
Business is the third leg of Noorani’s strategy, and he cites Wells Fargo, which, months after 9/11, “went out on a limb” in the face of “heated criticism” and started accepting a document issued by the Mexican government to all its citizens residing in America, regardless of immigration status. For the first time, undocumented workers could open bank accounts, and two years later, the company added “audio-capable ATMs” that recognized Spanish.
Within three years, more than 500,000 accounts had been opened using the Mexican document. Monica Lozano, publisher of La Opinion, the country’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper, said of Wells Fargo’s foresighted decision: “They weren’t just opening up checking accounts they were empowering” the community.
These are all good examples that will, hopefully, ease the “cultural anxiety” Noorani writes about. But he shies away from discussing a key dimension of Trump’s appeal: racism. “A significant portion of the American electorate felt their country had been taken away,” he writes, but he doesn’t complete the thought. Taken away by whom? Let’s be honest. Many of those voters believe that their country has been overrun by dark-skinned, foreign-language-speaking aliens.
While it is wildly unfair to call all Trump supporters racists, it is equally inaccurate to ignore that the president deliberately inflamed racist impulses to win the election.
Moreover, Noorani lacks a larger perspective. Trump is a very American figure. Anti-immigrant fears didn’t start with globalization and weren’t “triggered” by the election of Barack Obama. Throughout our history, spasms of nativist hostility have erupted against each new group arriving on our shores: Germans and Jews, Irish and Italians, Japanese and Chinese.
Hispanics and Muslims are now the objects of this animosity, and the language directed against them is the same that’s been used to demonize newcomers for more than two centuries: This group will degrade our culture and alter our identity. But today’s targets can take comfort from the clear lessons of history.
Immigrants do change our culture — for the better. They reenergize and revitalize our civic spirit. The haters are always wrong, and the haters will eventually lose. Tiwana and Noorani himself prove that truth.
By Ali Noorani
Prometheus. 319 pp. $25