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Our Next Governor: On Illegal Immigration

BOSTON — The federal government sets and enforces most immigration policy, but the state of Arizona has shown us how far a state government can, at least, try to set its own agenda.

WBUR’s Bianca Vazquez Toness joined Morning Edition Tuesday to describe how the four candidates for governor of Massachusetts differ in their approach to immigration policy.

Bob Oakes: Bianca, you report a lot on immigration issues. How far apart are these candidates on big issues like enforcement?

Bianca Vazquez Toness: The differences are stark. You’ve got independent Tim Cahill on the one end, who wants all state and local law enforcement officials to be able to detain illegal immigrants. And then on the other end you have Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein, who doesn’t think we should make any distinctions between legal, illegal immigrants and citizens.

Are any of them advocating anything like the Arizona law, which required local police to ask for proof of citizenship for anyone they believe might be in Arizona illegally?

No, none of the candidates want that. Cahill and Republican candidate Charlie Baker sympathize with Arizona, but say this state is not Arizona. They do both want local law enforcement officers to use immigration status to get people off the street, however. And this is something that half of U.S. states have counties or city jurisdictions that are already have this type of immigration authority. Gov. Deval Patrick got rid of this type of relationship with the state police when he took office.

Why did Patrick end that relationship with Massachusetts state troopers?

Patrick said at the time that it would be a waste of scarce resources, and instead, he put immigration checks in state prisons, so people could be checked after they were convicted.

But in recent interviews, Patrick explained another reason he worries about programs where police and state troopers are empowered to enforce immigration laws:

When you consider that there are so many people who, to the untrained and uninformed eye or ear, folks would mistake as undocumented people, I’m not perfectly comfortable having them swept up in our fervor.

Tell us where Baker is on this, and whether he’s concerned about these types of programs?

No, in general Baker seems very supportive of cooperation between the federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement. In fact, in Monday night’s debate he responded to this concern that enforcement causes a climate of fear among immigrants by bringing up business owners he says he’s talked to in Brockton who live in their own “climate of fear”:

The state has not been anywhere near as aggressive as it should be in working directly with locals to deal with some of the issues, especially around gangs and drugs. And they said point blank to me that there are a number of folks who are ringleaders in some of these operations they know for a fact are here illegally, and we’re not using any of the tools that are available to us as a state to get them out.

And as far as I’m concerned, you know, that climate of fear, you know, the people who play by the rules, let’s go back to where I started. I want the people who play by the rules to believe that they are going to get our first priority.

Bianca, we heard Patrick start to respond there, what did he say?

Patrick said that state troopers — the gang and drugs unit of the state troopers — do in fact work with immigration authorities. They have a relationship with immigration authorities to target people that they think might be here illegally so they can get them out of the country.

So what he was saying basically is, in fact there is a relationship, and it works, but it might not be this automatic relationship that Baker’s asking for.

Another immigration issue: Baker and Cahill are not supporting in-state tuition of illegal immigrants. I know that Patrick did support that, and driver’s licenses for people here illegally — is he still talking about that?

He says he still supports those programs, but he’s not pushing for them actively. Patrick needs the State House to approve those types of initiatives, and I think he’s gotten the message that those things are not popular right now. For instance, the state Senate passed a measure this year that would make it illegal to give illegal immigrant students the right to in-state tuition.

That didn’t end up passing, but some other parts of the measure did, which codified preexisting guidelines and rules to make sure illegal immigrants weren’t getting certain benefits like state health insurance. And this is another difference between the candidates — Baker and Cahill have said that Patrick isn’t doing enough to stop immigrants from receiving services, whereas Patrick’s position has been that the state is already doing this, and that it’s costly, it might hurt other immigrants if we get too strict about these things.

So yes, there are some big differences.

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