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MIRA’s Ali Noorani feted at State House

Victoria Cheng | 1/15/2009, 7:50 a.m.

Standing in the empty Senate Chamber located directly beneath the State House’s iconic golden dome, a dozen tourists gaze in awed silence at the room’s sunburst ceiling and august marble busts. Emerging through the wooden double doors into the hall, the tourists marvel at the chamber’s history and architectural beauty.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), has distinctly different memories of that hallway. He remembers standing in the carpet-lined corridor, overcome with a sense of bewilderment, during one of the first Senate budget debates he attended four and a half years ago when he took the reins at MIRA.

“Standing just outside this hallway surrounded by lobbyists who never really looked like me, [who] didn’t really care about the same issues,” he told a group of community leaders at the State House last Friday. “I remember standing there in that hallway at 11:30 at night and thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’”

From those initial moments of doubt, however, Noorani went on to build MIRA into a powerful player in the immigration debate. In the process, he has become a noted advocate for revising immigration laws, protecting undocumented immigrants and working closely with community organizations to create a coalition of voices in favor of immigrant rights and opportunities.

In May, Noorani will step down from MIRA’s top post to become executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a prominent pro-immigrant advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of his move, the Commonwealth Seminar last Friday presented Noorani with its “Opening the Doors of Government” award at the State House.

As award presenter and former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios told the crowd, Noorani has always approached his work with a firm belief that the promise of a better life implied in the American dream should be accessible to all.

To audience laughter and Noorani’s own growing but good-natured embarrassment, Barrios, now president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts, put Noorani’s place in the Bay State political landscape in context.

“Ali, for five years, has taken the difficult task on of going toe-to-toe with my good friend Howie Carr, and many of the other troglodytes … who somehow like to argue that people who came here because they believe that dream are less worthy, less human, less capable of accomplishing those ideals that make us all Americans,” said Barrios.

For Noorani, one battle stands out as particularly pitched.

“A couple of years ago, Gov. [Mitt] Romney had said that he wanted to wiretap all the mosques,” Noorani recalled in an interview, referring to comments Romney made in a Sept. 2005 speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states?” Romney said, referring to foreign students who attend universities in Massachusetts, according to a published report. “Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them?”

“How about people who are in settings — mosques, for instance — that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror,” the then-governor continued. “Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on?”

Like many civil and immigrant rights advocates, Noorani didn’t take too kindly to Romney’s remarks.

“I just found what he said and what he did to be so reprehensible,” he said.

Still, the role MIRA played in organizing the Muslim community to “really push back on Gov. Romney” and to hold the governor accountable underlined to Noorani the possibilities inherent in coordinated and empowered political action.

This sense of solidarity has allowed Noorani to remain composed — or, as he termed it in a moment of self-deprecation, “perhaps naïve or delusional” — during the more difficult moments of his tenure.

“If you don’t feel like you’re alone, whatever challenge you’re faced with, it just isn’t so bad, whether or not you win,” he said. “If you win together, it’s nice. If you lose together, you fight another day.”

As Barrios said to the emphatic nodding of heads and loud applause last Friday, Noorani has stood firm in the face of “great and difficult circumstances.”

“It is not easy, in America, it is not easy in Massachusetts,” Barrios said, “to stand up for somebody who is undocumented,” but Noorani has done so because of his conviction that legislators and citizens alike “have some responsibility to maintain our faith and keep that contract with that [American] dream, that promise, that opportunity.”

Noorani himself echoed some of these sentiments, noting that his views are not necessarily popular ones, including his belief that immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented, legal and illegal, deserve a chance to “get in line for citizenship.”

“I think the reality is that our immigration laws are so out of sync with reality that we’re responsible for putting people in these situations,” he said, alluding to the country’s relatively high standard of living and the international and domestic policies, many of which rely on being able to obtain services and products at low prices, that enable that standard. “That’s a tough thing to say.”

This willingness to make tough statements has made Noorani a formidable figure in the Massachusetts immigration debate, and there are many who hope that his move to Washington D.C. will similarly invigorate the debate nationwide. Noorani himself noted the need to continue the conversation in the nation’s capital.

“I think the biggest thing we need to do in 2008 is educate the candidates for president or Congress across the country to make sure they realize that there are realistic, legitimate opportunities to repair our immigration system,” he said. “This is an issue that needs to be resolved and that window opportunity might come up in the next few years.”

Commonwealth Seminar Executive Director Joel Barrera praised Noorani for his work in the Bay State.

“Under Ali, the MIRA Coalition was the strong voice immigrants needed in the face of a harsh political climate for new immigrants and refugees trying to find their place this country,” said Barrera. “He represented those often-marginalized strangers to this country with dignity, passion and humor.”

Exhibiting some of that humor in an e-mail inviting people to attend Noorani’s surprise award ceremony, Barrera announced, “Ali has personally promised me to go mano-a-mano with [CNN anchor and immigration opponent] Lou Dobbs and to tangle with [hard line anti-immigration Republican U.S. Rep.] Tom Tancredo. We wish him good luck with that!”