The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Uncommon Interview: Center for Effective Government Democracy Fellow Ali Noorani

Noorani, who spent fourteen years as president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum (NIF), spoke with the Maroon about his work with the NIF and his career at large.
Center for Effective Government
Democracy Fellow Ali Noorani, Executive Director of Unbound Philanthropy Taryn Higashi, and Senior Fellow at Democracy Fund and Just Solutions Rich Stolz pictured at the Center for Effective Government’s panel discussion on climate change and migration.

Ali Noorani, a member of the 2023–24 cohort of Democracy Fellows at the Center for Effective Government (CEG) within the Harris School of Public Policy, sat down with the Maroon to discuss his career with the National Immigration Forum, his book Crossing Borders, and his belief in the virtuous cycle of democracy.

Noorani received his bachelor’s degree in economics and social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and a master’s degree in public health from Boston University in 1999. He served as the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum from 2008 to 2022 and is currently a program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Noorani is the author of two books—There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration and Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants—as well as a Substack blog titled Cranky Dad, where he chronicles his life as an “old-man-girl-dad”.

Note: This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.

Chicago Maroon (CM): How did you come to be a part of the Center for Effective Government?

Ali Noorani (AN): I got to know [CEG Executive Director] Sadia [Sindhu] over the last year and a half and was really impressed with [CEG’s] goal of building out a talent pool that’s thinking about effective government, whether it’s at the city, state, or the federal level. And I feel like at this moment in time, the more people who have the skills and the curiosity that get into public service, the better.

CM: You spent fourteen years with the National Immigration Forum as President and CEO. How did that organization’s goals and challenges change over that time span? Fourteen years is a long time, especially with three different presidents with wildly different views on immigration.

AN: I got involved in immigration advocacy in late 2003—this was the George W. Bush administration. I was working in Massachusetts, and eventually, I went to run the National Immigration Forum in 2008. But over the course of the Bush administration, you could see how Republicans saw that the country needed to be welcoming of immigrants not only for a bottom-line labor perspective, but there was truly kind of a compassionate conservative element to it, whether it was refugee resettlement or treatment of the undocumented or helping folks go through the legal immigration process.

With Obama, that sentiment continued on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. But over the course of [the Obama presidency], migration was increasing because of war, poverty, climate change, and impunity in other countries, and so it took on this element of urgency. And migration started to be weaponized by bad-faith actors. That’s when I think we start to see the Syrian refugee crisis and how it played into the political strategy of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán and became part of the political strategy of the far right in the UK. And that really provided Trump and others with a pretty clear and compelling message to scare voters into a pretty hard, pretty anti-immigrant position, which was [very] different from where George W. Bush was.

CM: So where is that intersection between effective government and immigration reform? And is a lot of what you’re doing in terms of immigration reform about the effectiveness of government, or is it more about other factors that play into this incredibly complex issue?

AN: I think many Americans see the federal government’s approach to immigration as a measure of whether or not a government is effective, right? The problem is that, like you said, the policy landscape when it comes to immigration is really complicated. And also, very long. So, the government could be doing something that’s very effective when it comes to immigration in terms of visa processing that has a broad consensus, but then people will have wildly different perspectives on what the government is doing at the border. And one group may feel that’s very effective and others ineffective. I’m not sure whether or not the debate around immigration is at a point where you can actually have a rational conversation about whether or not the government is effective because there’s a long way of getting to the punch line because the system is so broken. No government, regardless of how effective it is, can implement or execute a system that is as fundamentally broken as the immigration system.

CM: Let’s transition a little bit to the Hewlett Foundation, where you’re a program director. I’m interested to hear what specific work you’re involved with there and what it’s been like given the general populace’s level of confidence in political and electoral systems.

AN: The Hewlett Foundation’s Democracy Program has an overarching goal of mitigating political polarization. And we do that through two distinct strategies—one is to advance trustworthy elections, and the other is to strengthen national governing institutions. The basic idea here is that if somebody participates in an election they see as trustworthy, and they see national governing institutions delivering on their needs, the virtuous cycle of democracy lives on another day. The problem these days is that trust in elections and trust in institutions is incredibly low. We are thrilled to be partnering with and supporting a range of organizations, from the center to the left to the right, who are looking to strengthen election infrastructure and processes and improve national governing institutions. It’s a tremendous privilege to work for an organization like this.

CM: And the virtuous cycle you mentioned—is that something that has happened in the past that you’re looking back at and trying to replicate, or is it more about the process of getting somewhere we haven’t been before and may never actually reach?

AN: I think it’s a “both and,” right? I think the process is just as important as the product. How do you rebuild trust in elections and institutions through a process that people feel like they’re a part of when that process is not going to be effective and much less successful? The process is really important, and the outcome is equally important. Poll after poll shows us that people like their members of Congress, right? But they don’t like Congress overall. They trust their election, but they don’t trust the election overall. So, there’s a dissonance there and a real gap that needs to be bridged in terms of people’s experience with democracy versus their perception of democracy.

CM: In your recent book, Crossing Borders, you offer very personal stories about individuals and families in Central America in the context of immigration at the U.S.–Mexico border. How important is that anecdotal aspect when you’re discussing immigration in the United States?

AN: You know, I think that immigration is often reduced down to a policy question or at best a political question. I think more importantly for most Americans is that immigration is a question of cultural values. That’s why, when I was writing that book, I was always trying to think about—OK, what’s the story that we’re telling to [the reader] about someone and why they decided they had to emigrate? What were the challenges, the opportunities that they saw? And what was the reaction, positive or negative, of the communities that were their new homes? And it’s through the telling of stories when people will begin to see themselves in the journey that someone takes.

And then you can have a policy conversation. Then you can have a political conversation. I think we make a mistake when we assume that the smartest policy is going to be the most convincing, right?

CM: You launched the Substack blog, Cranky Dad, recently. How have you enjoyed undertaking a project like that? In those blog posts, you weave in your family with a lot of the issues that we’ve talked about and that you’re working on.

AN: You know, what I try to do through Cranky Dad is take a step back from the work. It gives me an opportunity to think about what I’m thinking about without being terribly specific about any particular project. And then having a 15-month-old, you know, she kind of blows your mind every single day. But it kind of gets back to this question of “how do you tell stories about a changing country”? For policy students, we can have a conversation about policy. But we’re not normal people. And Cranky Dad gives me an opportunity to try to communicate what I’m seeing, what I’m reading, what I’m learning in a way that I hope resonates a little more broadly.

CM: Turning to your experience at the University, have you had the chance to interact with any students or faculty? And what kind of events or programming have you been a part of so far?

AN: I think it was maybe last year or the year before when I did an event over at the IOP [Institute of Politics] with Russell Moore, who was a fellow there. So, this is probably my second time on campus. Look, the University of Chicago—it’s got a reputation, right? And I think that the Harris School has done such an incredible job of not only helping those in government be more effective but putting people in government who want government to be more effective. And I think that when you look at the federal government, we’re going to see massive turnover in staff and expertise in the federal government over the coming years. And, you know, where does the next generation of talent come from? It comes from places like the University of Chicago.

CM: Before we end, whether it’s your work with the Hewlett Foundation or another book or creative output, are there any projects you have on your mind right now?

AN: You know, there’s been things that have been swimming around in my little brain. I’m really interested in the way that people really interact with government. Like I was saying earlier, I think people have great experiences with their city government for the most part, right? You know who’s supposed to fix that pothole, and you know who you can yell at. And many times, you’re going to be heard. State government feels a couple clicks further removed, the federal government even more clicks. But at the end of the day, the impact the federal government has on each of our lives is inversely proportional to how close the federal government is to us. So, I don’t have a clear idea here, but we’ll see what comes with this.

Leave a Comment
Donate to Chicago Maroon
Our Goal

Your donation makes the work of student journalists of University of Chicago possible and allows us to continue serving the UChicago and Hyde Park community.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Austin Zeglis
Austin Zeglis, Senior News Reporter, Senior Sports Reporter
Austin is a member of the class of 2024 who hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He studies economics and music in the College and contributes to the Sports and News sections of The Maroon.
Donate to Chicago Maroon
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All Chicago Maroon Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *