From Utah to South Carolina, a different conversation on immigration is emerging.
It is a conversation conservatives are leading, and it does not center on the politics of immigration, much less the controversial policy questions that make consensus so hard to reach.
Rather, at its heart are culture, values and, quite simply, reality in neighborhoods across the nation.
The research for my new book, “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration,” took me not only to Utah but to many corners of the country as I interviewed nearly 60 faith, law enforcement and business leaders. The majority would identify as socially conservative, politically conservative or both.
In my conversations, I learned that a political debate cannot solve the cultural anxieties many Americans feel regarding immigrants and refugees. And when it comes to security, it is easy to see how politicians react to their constituents’ fear with short-sighted policy ideas that build walls and end refugee resettlement.
What I learned in South Carolina and Utah gave me hope. Yes, there are significant challenges in both states. But the culture and values of these two very conservative states are charting a different path.
In South Carolina I sat with a retired elementary school principal, teachers, pastors and voters. And in Utah I learned from faith leaders, law enforcement experts and business leaders, among others.
For South Carolina, having experienced some of the fastest growth in the Latino population in the nation, the cultural changes that came with immigration happened quickly. In fact, it seemed that as the textile industry moved to Latin America, Latin America moved to South Carolina.
But in upstate Spartanburg, the leadership of churches, educators and business owners eased anxieties of native-born residents as well as immigrants. I learned of adult education classes where immigrants and South Carolinians taught each other about their lives, developing relationships that cut across the ugly political debate. I saw how churches were eager to resettle refugees, regardless of their religion.
Meanwhile, building on the power of the 2010 Utah Compact that changed the nation’s immigration debate, new doors have opened here. Support was shifting from anti-immigration legislation to constructive immigration reform that helps all Americans. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was contributing millions of dollars to international refugee resettlement efforts and challenging efforts to scapegoat people based on their religious beliefs.
Whether they are evangelical Christian or Mormon, the people I have met share a deep belief that families should be safe and protected, and that all people should be able to reach their fullest potential. For local leaders witnessing change in their neighborhoods, this approach applies to resettling Syrian refugees as much as it applies to finding a way forward for undocumented immigrants and their families.
By getting out of Washington, D.C., and sitting with a range of conservative leaders at the local as well as the national level, I learned that our nation’s struggles with immigration are bigger than one piece of legislation. When we begin to understand the economic and physical fears that are challenging our values and our identity, we create space for a framework such as the Utah Compact, through which we can reach Americans’ hearts and minds.
In Utah and South Carolina, Texas and Indiana and beyond, I came away with the sense that constructive conversations and even solutions are possible.
If there ever were a time to approach our nation’s immigration debate through culture and values, it is now. And Utah continues to set an example.
Conservative or liberal, we need to be willing to meet people where they are on immigration, but not leave them there. That is how we’ll arrive at an immigration process that honors our culture and values, works for all Americans, respects human dignity and the rule of law, and helps all Americans thrive.
Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 South 1500 East, and will speak at the Salt Lake Chamber’s New Pioneers – American Dream Award Luncheon on Wednesday. “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration” (Prometheus Books, 2017) features a chapter on Utah’s leadership.