Immigration leader tells Utahns that the border wall is ‘a powerful symbol. But it’s not a symbol that solves a problem.’

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.

President Donald Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico by itself would not come close to stopping illegal immigration, a man who tries to build national coalitions with conservatives and moderates on immigration told a Utah audience on Thursday.

“The wall makes a great symbol, a powerful symbol. But it’s not a symbol that solves a problem,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum told the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Disagreements over the wall could lead to another shutdown of the federal government next week if negotiators can’t find a solution that both Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress can accept. Trump has demanded $5.7 billion for a border wall, while Democrats, who control the House, don’t want to approve any new spending for it. Utahns are split on whom to blame.

Noorani, the son of Pakistani immigrants who heads a group that generally works from the political right to address immigration, outlined why a wall by itself is no solution.

“It would not stop visa overstays,” he said, which is how 60 percent of undocumented immigrants actually arrived in the country.

“It would not stop people from applying for asylum who are not entering illegally,” including recent caravans of Central Americans who have been criticized by Trump. They identify themselves at the border as they seek refuge from violence.

A woman arrives with donations at a shelter housing Central American immigrants in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. A caravan of about 1,600 Central American migrants camped Tuesday in the Mexican border city of Piedras Negras, just west of Eagle Pass, Texas. The governor of the northern state of Coahuila described the migrants as "asylum seekers," suggesting all had express intentions of surrendering to U.S. authorities. (Jerry Lara/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

Noorani added that lieutenants of El Chapo the notorious drug cartel leader, testified last year that “they’re not worried about a wall in the middle of the desert. They’re worried about ports of entry because that’s where they smuggle their drugs” — so it may make more sense to improve detection and add guards there.

Meanwhile, Noorani said that already “we are seeing the number of people entering the country between ports of entry” — where the wall is proposed — “continue to drop,” suggesting that is not where the biggest problem lies.

He said arrests at the border peaked in the early 2000s, and have dropped since — reaching historic lows at the end of the Obama administration. “At this point of the Trump administration, they still are nowhere near what we saw in, say, 2014” when a flood of unaccompanied minors attempted crossings.

In this Jan. 16, 2019, image, a man uses a ladder to climb an electrical pole in a border neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico, alongside a newly-replaced section of the border wall. The U.S. faces a delicate dance as it charts a course to extend or replace border barriers near homes and structures. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Noorani suggests what a real solution might look like.

“If we want to solve the problem of illegal immigration we need, No. 1, a functioning legal immigration system,” but the current system has years of delays and obstacles for would-be immigrants. And systems for legal work permits fill rapidly and don’t meet demands, he said.

“And No. 2, we need to be able to reach a point of resolution with respect to the undocumented population that's already here,” he said, adding that population now has reached 10 million to 11 million nationwide.

As America wrestles with immigration, Noorani says it should follow the example of the “Utah Compact,” signed in 2010 by local church, business, law enforcement and community leaders who sought to cool then-overheated debates here.

It called for humane treatment of immigrants, including seeking to keep families together and focusing deportation on serious criminals instead of those with just civil violations of immigration law.

“It changed the national discussion,” Noorani said, adding his group started to pattern its own efforts on the compact and discussions that led to it, and tried to replicate what Utah did elsewhere.

“What we found is that conservative and moderate leaders are looking to be part of the immigration conversation where they weren’t being yelled at, where they could be part of the discussion that was constructive. It was thoughtful. It was tense, but it was real,” he said.

In this Dec. 11, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Congress is racing to avoid a partial government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s border. But you wouldn’t know it by the schedule. Lawmakers are away until next week. The ball is in Trump’s court, both sides say. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Noorani said immigration debates have become so polarized that working out a compromise is difficult.

“I think the debate is so polarized that [people] feel like the only choices they have are the far left or the far right,” he said. “There is an exhausted majority of Americans in the middle who are looking for something different.”