SFMN Washington Bureau reporters Leo Cosio and Gabriel Poblete on Wednesday sat down with National Immigration Forum Communications Director Cathleen Farrell to discuss a wide range of issues, from the difference between journalism and advocacy, to how her organization — which works with persons and groups of all political persuasions — is helping to move the needle ahead on comprehensive immigration reform. Before arriving at the NIF in 2014, Farrell was the Director of Digital Strategy and Communications at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a journalist in Colombia and Miami, and is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal. Born and raised in Montreal, she is fluent in three languages and became a U.S. citizen earlier this year.
What is the mission of the National Immigration Forum?
The mission of the Forum is to advocate for immigrants and the value that immigration brings to the country. As immigrants are seen as a threat to society, we actively try to change the narrative and counter that.
How does your role as an advocate differ from your previous experience as a journalist?
You want to change the narrative, improve it, educate people so they’re equipped to discuss the issue. I have my own viewpoint and an honest journalist will say they have a viewpoint too. The difference is I can declare mine openly; a journalist can’t. I think a good, mature journalist will say “alright, I know I like one party more than the other so I’m going to double-down on making sure that my reporting is really factual.” An advocate can say openly this is what I believe and this is what I’m doing.
It seems like the Forum targets people who have misconceptions about immigration.
Not really. My boss, Executive Director Ali Noorani, thought about who was not at the table. In his (recently published) book (There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration), he writes about a Saturday in December 2010, the day the (U.S.) Senate was scheduled to vote on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the DREAM Act. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and the DREAM Act failed. That’s where our strategy was born. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was cultural; it cut across political lines because everybody has a family member, a friend, a teacher, a doctor, somebody in their lives who is gay. And that’s the same with immigration but we don’t think about it that way. We think about it across party lines. That’s the mistake.
By 2012, the NIF was actively working on a study to see where immigration had increased in the country. We found that the “reddest” states had the highest growth rate in immigration in recent years. So the Forum started talking to evangelical faith leaders, law enforcement executives like police chiefs and sheriffs, and with business owners. We created “Bibles, Badges and Business” to build relationships in these communities and provide a platform for these groups to have conversations about immigration.
How effective has that strategy been of trying to get different groups on the same page with this issue?
It’s successful in increments. We tend to look at everything in electoral cycles and it’s not about that. We have to change people’s minds and inform them. We have to be thinking long-term. I think the country is talking about DREAMers in a more positive way. That’s a start. We’ve won a battle. We need to continue telling the story that immigrants are givers, not takers, that they’re not a threat, that they’re helpful to national security and that they’re adding something culturally, not trying to eliminate the English language.
How much of your work is educating and how much is debunking?
Unfortunately, it’s probably more debunking now that I’m thinking about it, and I’ll tell you why. When you are dealing with a guy (President Trump who has taken a hardline stance on immigration) who has the biggest, most powerful bully pulpit in the whole world, whatever he says everybody is gonna quote, it’s gonna be on the news, it’s gonna be everywhere, and we’ve got to fight against that. Right now a lot of it is debunking.
How do you educate journalists?
I probably average five calls a day from journalists, and that’s on anything. We do something called a pen and pad, where we can do it on or off the record, and we would probably have somebody from our shop, so our boss and maybe the policy director, and an outside expert come in. We’ll do it (sometimes) off the record is so that they can really go deep and the expert who comes in doesn’t have to have everything filtered through their communication shop beforehand.
What we started to do this summer was to hold invitation-only briefings with religious media journalists. We started doing this around (the issue of) family separation because there was an awful lot of interest in faith communities about this issue. We did six or seven of those this summer with experts from outside organizations, and every call we had five or six journalists on them, and people were really grateful because we could go really deep. We use all the tricks of the trade on both communications and journalism. We also have a podcast and a daily “Noorani’s Notes;” stories to pay attention to. We produce really good content, but we’re not a media company.
Do you miss being a journalist and why did you decide switch to advocacy?
You always miss being a journalist. There is nothing like it. It’s the best career in the world, but there was a bunch of reasons. Some of it was serendipitous that these opportunities presented themselves, and I’m still able to do the things I want to do. I’m still able to write, I’m still able to strategize, I’m still able to tell great stories and meet interesting people, which I think is probably the best thing about journalism: it’s a license to be curious.
You can take all that stuff to other areas, which is what I’ve done. So yes, I miss it, but I also think journalism has changed so much that it’s really hard to make a living at it. I have a family, I’m a single parent. So there was that pragmatic part.
I was just at a point in my life where I really thought I need to feel like I’m somehow involved in the change. Not that you’re not as journalist, but that’s not what you get up to do. That’s not your mission everyday. This is my mission every morning. I’ve got to get up every day and think about how I’m gonna change this narrative and how I’m gonna help inform people and eventually bring about important change in our country.
As an immigrant, how do you view what’s going on?
As an immigrant, you often look at Americans and go “oh my god! You guys have it so good,” or “oh my god, you don’t value what you have.” I was in Toronto over the weekend and I didn’t hear people bad-mouthing Trump as much as “you guys have to get your act together. You guys have to stop fighting.” Is immigration the proxy for all these other greater ills that people are feeling about the economy and new cultures encroaching? Maybe it is.
How is the organization’s message engaging youth? How important do you think it is to get young people involved in this discussion?
I’m not a 100 percent convinced that that’s part of our role. We’re talking more and more about engaging the general public, which is something that we didn’t necessarily do before even though we did so by extension. I don’t think that we’re (engaging young people) intentionally. I think we’re at the point that we’re discussing it.
I’ll give you a more cynical but very personal take: If youth are so engaged, how come we’re in this situation now? The millennials are the biggest generation out there, they’re bigger than the boomers now. I feel a lot of sorrow for this generation. You’ve all grown up in the shadow of 9/11. You’ve all grown up in the shadow of climate change. We’re also competing with these other issues. I think fiscally this generation is a lot more conservative than my generation. I think you’re probably a more pragmatic generation. Progressive, I don’t know. We’re struggling with how we talk to this younger generation and who they are.
How do you see the results of the midterm elections affecting your work?
I don’t know yet. We might be happy if a pro-immigration candidate wins, but if that person is knocked out by somebody who doesn’t care that much about immigration, then we have to look at what is going to be better for immigration reform. We need to to stay the course. We need to keep telling that positive story about immigrants, because I think that immigration is an abstract concept for a lot of Americans. But immigrants themselves are not an abstract concept; they’re flesh and blood, human beings in their midst. They’re neighbors, they’re friends, they’re family and if we can keep telling that story and reminding people, then they’ll be telling their own stories. This is long-term, like I said before. I don’t see this as one election cycle to another. We have to really inform people and change hearts and minds and that’s the role of the communications team.