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The issue of immigration is emerging as a flash point in Massachusetts politics. The state Senate has passed a tougher immigration bill than ever before. Some lawmakers say they were motivated to support the bill after poll numbers showed that Massachusetts voters favor stricter treatment of illegal immigrants.
WBUR’s political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — sat down with Bob Oakes to talk about how the immigration issue will play in the race for governor.
Dan Payne (D): Anti-immigrant sentiment in the Legislature can be partially traced back to the recent poll, which shows that 84 percent of Massachusetts voters want people to provide proof of citizenship to receive state benefits.
The other factor is Republicans in the Legislature — who aren’t even a minority, they’re more like an asterisk. They are trying to exploit social anxiety at a time of economic stress to create a wedge issue for their legislative candidates. This new bill is a solution without a problem. Undocumented immigrants can’t receive many benefits for which citizens qualify.
It’s an attempt by Republicans to ride the coattails of Arizona's law that forces police officers to become immigration enforcers. Ironically, that law is opposed by many Arizona police departments. They say it could lead to higher crime because they are turned into immigration enforcement squads, and that it also breaks down trust between cops and the Mexican-American community.
We can't get too carried away drawing comparisons between Massachusetts and Arizona. Here, we don’t have border hysteria and justifiable worry like they do in Arizona. Hispanics make up about 1/3 of Arizona's legal residents, and another 500,000 are there illegally. They’ve got a much bigger problem than Massachusetts, where we have 89,000 undocumented residents.
This new (Senate) bill is a solution without a problem. Undocumented immigrants can’t receive many benefits for which citizens qualify.
-- Analyst Dan Payne (D)
They've also got a huge budget deficit in Arizona, so why not pick on those who can't vote?
Here, the two white candidates for governor, independent Timothy Cahill and Republican Charles Baker, are using immigration to burnish their conservative credentials.
Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick, the African-American, is maintaining a position of tolerance — which is not necessarily a winning hand. A lot will depend on whether the governor vetoes the bill if it gets to his desk. My guess is that he will veto it or send it back for changes. His administration has stood for tolerance.
In a related topic, Cahill attacked Patrick for reaching out to a Muslim audience, saying he was “playing politics with terrorism.”
The governor’s timing was less than ideal coming soon after a link was made between the would-be Times Square bomber and a Pakistani living in Watertown. Because the known terrorists are Muslim, it’s inevitable that non-Muslims will see them as dangerous.
But Cahill’s reaction amounted to saying all Muslims in Massachusetts are terrorists. I wonder, if Patrick went to a Sons of Italy gathering, would Cahill say he’s playing politics with the mafia?
You don’t attack a whole group or religion if you don’t like what a tiny minority is doing. If the governor was pandering, he was working a very small room. Muslims are less than 3 percent of the electorate. In Massachusetts, there are about 120,000 Muslims.
That's only slightly more than the 117,000 people on the voter rolls who are dead — some of whom have been known to vote.
Todd Domke (R): The issue of illegal immigration could be important in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race if it remains a major national issue or if Patrick vetoes a bill to ban public benefits for illegal immigrants.
According to polls, the vast majority of state voters favor banning public benefits for illegal immigrants. So Patrick won’t want to make it an issue. Republican Baker seems a little uncomfortable with the issue — he prefers to make it a question about the state’s fiscal crisis and the economy.
Independent candidate Cahill is emphasizing his opposition to public benefits because he’s trying to find a way to pump up his polling numbers after he’s been deflated by the negative ad campaign of the Republican Governors Association.
The new Arizona law was a trigger for the national debate. And the GOP primary contest there between Sen. John McCain and Rep. J. D. Hayworth added fuel to the fire.
But the recession also fuels the controversy. People who can’t find jobs see illegal immigrants working, and they resent it. And contractors who don’t hire undocumented workers often can’t compete price-wise with those who do.
The Tea Party reflects the anger, too. In this case, it is anger that the federal government won’t secure the border for what many conservatives see as political reasons. They believe the Obama administration and the Democratic leaders in Congress want to add 10 million people to the voter rolls to expand the Democratic base.
This issue reveals Cahill’s strategy. He’s trying to draw contrast with both Baker and Patrick by being a conservative populist on social issues. On every other issue, he is essentially the same as Patrick or Baker. Being conservative on social issues gives him a chance to claim to be a real alternative.
(Immigration) reveals Cahill’s strategy. He’s trying to draw contrast with both Baker and Patrick by being a conservative populist on social issues.
-- Analyst Todd Domke (R)
Cahill's first job is to get back into contention, to bounce back from being a distant third in the polls. And since he’s not willing to spend some of his $3 million in the bank — he thinks he needs to keep that to be competitive in the end — he needs to generate free publicity, which he can only do by being controversial. So, we should expect more conservative positions on social issues — and perhaps more appearances on Glenn Beck.
The Cahill strategy was also on display recently when he attacked Patrick for meeting with Muslims, charging that the governor was “playing politics with terrorism.” There was immediate backfire. Religious leaders of other faiths issued a statement condemning Cahill for being intolerant.
We can’t be sure of Cahill’s motives, but we do know a few things: he is a career politician trying to reverse his decline in the polls, and he saw that Sen. Scott Brown’s most potent issue was denying terrorists the right to civilian trials.
He made a statement he must have known would be incendiary, saying the governor was playing politics with terrorism when Cahill himself was playing politics with the statement. Apparently it’s not patriotism that is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it’s paranoia. But to demonize people because of their religion, ethnicity or race won’t fly with most voters in this state. They see through demagoguery.
I suspect Cahill also made the statement to shift attention away from his excusing the patronage abuse at the Probation Department after The Boston Globe exposed what was going on there, including Cahill’s involvement.
The problem Cahill has with conservative voters is that they are also angry about career politicians who are guilty of patronage abuse, cronyism and corruption. And they’re not going to say, “Well, Cahill is one of the State House gang, but he condemned the governor for meeting with Muslims, so I guess he’s OK.” No, voters are mad, but they aren’t crazy.
There are legitimate policy questions about illegal immigration and homeland security, and there’s nothing wrong with debating them. But it doesn’t seem that Cahill is trying to shed light; he is trying to inflame emotions for political advantage.
This program aired on June 2, 2010.
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