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Gov. Patrick’s Offer To House Unaccompanied Immigrants Sparks Debate

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick’s offer to temporarily shelter some of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children who’ve crossed the U.S.-Mexico border since last fall has ignited a debate across Massachusetts.

Last week, an emotional Gov. Patrick said he had a moral obligation to help immigrant children who’ve been detained at the southern border.

“My faith teaches that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him, but rather love him as yourself,” Patrick said, flanked by faith leaders.

Patrick said he was offering the federal government two possible locations to temporarily house up to 1,000 children — Camp Edwards military base in Bourne and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. He said local communities wouldn’t pay a dime and that the children wouldn’t go to public schools or use local services. They would be secured on the base, he said, and the federal government would fit the bill.

On average, they would be here for 35 days. After which they would be granted asylum, processed for deportation, or reunited with family in the U.S.

Despite the governor’s assurances, his proposal set off a firestorm at a public meeting this week in Bourne.

“It’s our town and we don’t even know what’s going on,” said Linda Zuern, a member of Bourne’s board of selectmen. “We don’t know how many people are coming. We don’t know if they’re gang members or whatever.”

Zuern told the all-white crowd that she worries not just about children from Central America, but immigrants from the Middle East and China.

“My feeling is this whole invasion of our country is against the constitution,” she said.

Some folks worried that the children could bring diseases and “water down” the local culture. Mary Woodruff held up a banner that read, “No Illegals!”

“They’re not all cute little kids with brown eyes,” Woodruff said. “They know what they’re doing and they’re going to be sucking us dry. Send them the hell back.”

Emotions spilled over to Bourne’s Main Street.

Betty Rose was sitting outside an ice cream shop. She evaded eye contact behind her sunglasses, but her words were straightforward. “I think they should be stopped at the border, period,” she said.

In between licks of chocolate ice cream, Rose said people might think she’s negative, but she doesn’t think these children belong on the Cape. “They’re coming in from Texas and Arizona, what are they doing in Massachusetts?”

Reactions like this don’t surprise Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio.

“The state is viewed as a reliably blue state and many people believe it must be thoroughly liberal.” But he says that’s not true. On some issues, in some places, the state is quite conservative. And he says there are people, particularly on the Cape, who are staunchly anti-immigrant.

“This kind of debate, by saying you’re going to bring these folks from the border here, opens up a raw wound for many of these people,” Ubertaccio said.

And while unaccompanied minors won’t be wandering the streets of Bourne, some might be reunited with families who live in cash-strapped immigrant cities like Lynn.

Even before this uproar, Lynn Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said she had seen an uptick in children reunited with their families and enrolling in already overcrowded public schools. But when she raised that concern, immigration activists criticized her.

Kennedy says the issue is so polarizing she can’t even speak about the financial costs without being attacked.

“I have been called a racist, and I am as far from that as that as possible,” Kennedy said. “From the city of Lynn’s perspective, this is a purely economic issue.”

Kennedy says she needs more money for schools and services, and she’s not getting any help from the state or the feds.

Patricia Montes, with the immigrant rights group Centro Presente, confronted the mayor after an immigration summit at the State House Thursday, asking why politicians and public officials were discussing immigrant issues with no immigrants at the table.

“I’m very upset because I am an immigrant and they are saying they are having a conversation, a dialogue to talk about the immigrant community without having the voice of the immigrant community in that dialogue,” Montes said.

The governor says people are confusing politics with an attempt to help kids. “I think it is important for people to separate the question of temporary help in a facility at the expense of the federal government from the larger question of immigration reform, on which there is a lot of heat and not a lot of light.”

The governor insists all he’s done is respond to a plea for help in a humanitarian crisis

“And I think the people of the commonwealth on the whole have hearts big enough to enable us to do that.”

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