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The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday passed a measure that would limit the access of illegal immigrants to some unemployment and welfare benefits, but did not go as far as Republicans would have liked.
The amendment to the state budget, which passed on a 32-6 vote, was designed to quash a more expansive Republican-sponsored measure which would have barred illegal immigrants from a wider range of benefits. One Democrat joined the Senate's Republican minority in voting against it.
A similar measure was narrowly defeated in the Massachusetts House last month.
Republicans criticized the amendment as a watered-down measure, and argued that if the federal government isn't going to do enough to enforce the nation's immigration laws, then states have to step in to fill the void with their own legislation.
The vote came amid an ongoing and sometime rancorous debate on Beacon Hill about the extent to which the state should go to discourage illegal immigrants and deny them benefits.
Senate Republicans have sponsored a series of immigrant-related amendments, including one that would require employers who contract with the state to verify that everyone working for them is in the country legally.
"It's not fair in the midst of a recession for us to be channeling dollars through employers to people who are getting employment illegally," said Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.
But immigrant activists painted the GOP-backed amendments as "mean-spirited" and "demonizing."
At a morning press conference, Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition Director Eva Millona said the GOP budget amendments contribute to an "anti-immigrant fever" in the country.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, accused Republicans of trying to score "cheap political points" in an election year.
She called the more expansive amendment, which would have required the state to ramp up background checks on the legal status of people seeking public benefits "a multimillion campaign ad for Republicans seeking higher office."
But the criticism backfired when New England director Derrek Shulman said the some columnists, radio talk show hosts and politicians have begun to echo the language of racists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis when it comes to the illegal immigrant debate.
That, he said, could eventually lead to a climate of "cultural destruction."
The comment prompted Senate President Therese Murray to issue a statement faulting Shulman and calling on him to apologize and retract his comments.
"This kind of rhetoric has no place in our conversation," Murray said. "All members have the right to debate an issue without being subjected to this kind of demonization by someone who holds an opposing view."
The debate comes as a new poll finds Massachusetts voters backing tougher restrictions on non-citizens.
The Suffolk University/WHDH-TV survey released Wednesday found 84 percent of voters recommending that Massachusetts lawmakers require people provide proof of citizenship to receive state benefits. Twelve percent opposed such a requirement and 4 percent were undecided.
Voters were more divided on Arizona's new immigration law, with 53 percent backing it and 40 percent opposed. Asked if Massachusetts should pass a similar law, 43 percent agreed while 50 percent said no.
And asked if they agreed with a U.S. immigration court's decision to grant asylum to President Barack Obama's African aunt Zeituni Onyango, 58 percent said they agreed, 29 percent said she should be deported and 13 percent were undecided.
The poll surveyed 500 Massachusetts registered voters from Thursday to Sunday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
This program aired on May 27, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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