A walk through the neighborhood in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Ali Noorani)

As I sit on an evening flight to California, I can’t help but think about going back to where I came from.

Look, opponents of immigrants and immigration want our political debate to be about going back. To a time when the country was less diverse. To a time when the goods Americans bought were made by Americans (even if they were immigrants). To a time when kids would do better than their parents. To a time when the pictures Americans saw of immigrants were the stories of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents.

We argue the past defines the future.

But for most Americans, the past has nothing to do with the future.

Because the past is safe. It is easy to understand. It is easy to celebrate the good parts. Romanticize the hard parts.

The future is scary. It is unpredictable. It is the mass movement of people. It is a changing economy. It is easy to demonize.

Instead of arguing about the past, what it means, or doesn’t mean, we should be understanding what scares people about the future — so we can make a better case for immigrants and immigration.

Building on the series of Living Room Conversations we organized last year, our team has convened 20 additional Conversations this year. Between the fact we continue to move into new areas and have doubled our efforts to recruit folks who are neutral or opposed to immigration, the conversations of 2019 are more tense.

But the themes remain consistent.

Cultural, security and economic fears continue to drive perceptions. Fears of Islam, public safety, and lost jobs and services, sit on top of the prevailing sense. that our border seems out of control.

(Listen to my Only in America conversation with Sonia Nazario, one of the best journalists covering Central American migration.)

Hardened by political ideology, compromise feels harder to come by.

For example, the group in St Croix Falls, WI, told us people appear to hold more extreme ideals than what they actually personally believe in because it’s “safer to be with the pack.” And, they told us, to be in the middle almost means you lose that sense of belonging.

Participants in Hudson, WI, felt there seems to be more of a fear of groups than individuals. And that society has become more unforgiving.

And in Fort Wayne, Indiana, participants voiced strong resistance to any compromise on personal values, but indicated that people should learn to work together even without agreeing.

What gives me hope is that conservatives in suburban and rural areas are showing up for conversations about immigration. And they want to be engaged beyond the conversation. Because in the growing sense of chaos, they want solutions to our immigration system.

Amarillo, TX, is indicative of what is possible.

The dozen or so conservative participants knew the conversation was around immigration. But they thought they were receiving a message, not sharing their perspective. Once they realized our team was in listening mode, as our organizer put it, “fears to talk became tears of joy to speak to truths.”

Nothing against my hometown, Salinas, CA, but I don’t want to go back. CA is living it’s future.

I am more interested in places that are working past their difficult immigration history to create an optimistic future.

Like Twin Falls, ID, where dairymen, law enforcement, city officials and faith leaders are building a coalition to ensure immigrants and refugees can reach their fullest potential.

Like Westerville, OH, where Pastor Rich Nathan has built a mega-church that is 45% people of color in suburban America — and was kind enough to host one of our statewide convening last week.

Like Palestine, TX, population 18,000, where Chief Andy Harvey is a bridge between a fast growing Latino community and a long standing rural Anglo population.

There are so many places and leaders working to make an optimistic future. Whether it is in the digital or offline space, we have ceded these stories to our opposition.

Yes, the next 15 months will look a lot like our last seven days.

But I refuse to think about going back to anything.

I’m going forward.


President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.