Yusufi Vali, who most recently ran the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, was tapped Thursday to head the city’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, becoming the highest-ranking Muslim in city government in recent memory.
The 36-year-old, whose family immigrated to the United States from India when he was 9, takes over a critical post in constituent services at a time when immigrants are being scapegoated by the Trump administration and its supporters.
Vali said he will look to build upon the support he has seen for community and religious groups in Boston in recent years, to confront what he called fear-mongering rhetoric, and to work for opportunities for all residents.
“We’re not going to give into any fear, rather we’re going to work across ethnic, faith, gender, racial lines to build a strong community here,” Vali said in a briefing with reporters Thursday at City Hall.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised Vali’s history of advocacy and his passion for immigration affairs, what he called an integral service in his administration.
“This office is obviously important to me and the city,” said Walsh, a son of immigrants who made national headlines in 2017 when he challenged President Trump’s immigration policies and vowed to use City Hall as a shelter to protect immigrants.
In recent years, the city has passed Boston’s first Trust Act to keep police officers from enforcing immigration law and has opposed efforts to undermine national policies, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The city has also directed $50,000 toward a Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund to support education and legal services for local immigrants and refugees.
As the director of the cultural center and mosque, the largest in New England, Vali oversaw a congregation of 1,500 members — representing 64 ethnicities — many of them immigrants.
In an interview, Vali praised what he called the values of Bostonians who rallied around the local Muslim community following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which were carried out in the name of Al Qaeda. City residents could have turned away from Muslims, he said, but instead “turned toward them.”
Similarly, he saw communities of all faiths rally around the local Jewish community following the massacre last year at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Earlier this year, local groups and officials, including Walsh, showed support for Boston’s Muslim community following an attack at two mosques in New Zealand.
“We in Boston are going to cross ethnic, gender, racial lines to do what’s good in our community,” Vali said. “I’m excited now to be able to do that for immigrant communities across Boston.”
He acknowledged there is work to do to create access and opportunities for immigrants and their children at schools, and in government programs. That means eliminating barriers, whether they be cultural, or bureaucratic: Vali said he knew of too many cabdrivers who are professionally trained in fields such as medicine but cannot work in those fields because they do not know how to get the proper certification in the United States.
Vali said he witnessed the struggles of immigrants firsthand when he moved to Missouri from India more than 20 years ago. His father could only get temporary work at first. His mother started to work at a day-care center just to help put food on the table.
But he also saw the opportunities before him. He became the first in his family to attend an Ivy League school, Princeton.
He said the new assignment “is really an opportunity to live out my values.”