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Immigration becomes hot topic in Mass. politics after migrants brought to Martha's Vineyard04:49
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Volunteers and immigrants cheer in the driveway of St. Andrews Parish House on Martha's Vineyard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Volunteers and immigrants cheer in the driveway of St. Andrews Parish House on Martha's Vineyard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When Gov. Ron DeSantis flew four dozen migrants to Martha's Vineyard last week, he was probably thinking first and foremost of how it would play in his home state of Florida.

But the controversial move has also put immigration front and center in Massachusetts politics.

Not long after the planes touched down on Martha's Vineyard, a Republican running for attorney general in the state issued a news release targeting prominent Massachusetts Democrats.

"Maura Healey and Andrea Campbell have been welcoming illegal immigrants to the state for years," said Jay McMahon in the statement. The Cape Cod attorney is hoping to succeed Healey, the current attorney general running for governor, and defeat Campbell, the Democratic nominee for the office.

McMahon called the two Democrats "radical progressives" who back lax immigration policies that jeopardize public safety. In an interview with WBUR, he said his heart goes out to the migrants, but they need to be handled by law enforcement, not welcomed as new residents.

"It's not a community-based issue where we just welcome anyone who's poor and say, 'we're going to take care of them, give them health care and all that stuff,' " he said.

McMahon wondered aloud why the state managed to quickly house the Venezuelan migrants at a military base on Cape Cod, but won't offer similar help to homeless veterans. He also said he is sympathetic to southern governors, like DeSantis, who claim to be overwhelmed by waves of migrants.

Jay McMahon speaks at the 2018 state Republican Convention in Worcester during his first run for attorney general. (Sam Doran/SHNS)
Jay McMahon speaks at the 2018 state Republican Convention in Worcester during his first run for attorney general. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

By contrast, McMahon's Democratic opponent in the race for attorney general, Campbell, blasted DeSantis for what she described as a "cruel political stunt" that targeted families, women and children.

"I'm proud of the folks on the Vineyard — the elected officials and everyone who mobilized to make sure every single individual that arrived was received with compassion," Campbell said on MSNBC. "That's what we're about here in Massachusetts. And frankly, that's what Democrats are about, not political stunts."

Andrea Campbell, candidate for Attorney General is flanked by United States Rep. Ayanna Pressley, left, and Attorney General and candidate for governor Maura Healey during a canvassing event at America's Food Basket in the Hyde Park neighborhood on September 3, 2022. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Andrea Campbell, candidate for Attorney General is flanked by United States Rep. Ayanna Pressley, left, and Attorney General and candidate for governor Maura Healey during a canvassing event at America's Food Basket in the Hyde Park neighborhood on September 3, 2022. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates like Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, say the migrants are not "illegal immigrants."

Espinoza-Madrigal, who is representing many of the migrants, said his clients surrendered to immigration officials at the border, and are now in the country legally as they await their hearings. And if any laws were broken, Espinoza-Madrigal said they were shattered by the people who duped the migrants to come to Massachusetts with false promises of housing, jobs and legal assistance.

"This is a fraud," Espinoza-Madrigal said. "And this has a host of criminal and civil implications."

Espinoza-Madrigal is calling for a criminal investigation that would target the governor of Florida and "other accountable parties."

Authorities in Texas have opened a criminal investigation into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' flights last week that carried migrants to Massachusetts. And a pair of Cape Cod lawmakers are also calling for an investigation by the Department of Justice into the matter. State Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Dylan Fernandes met with some of the migrants Monday on Cape Cod, and said the immigrants were tricked into boarding the planes, which carried them from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.

Speaking on NBC on Sunday, Fernandes criticized DeSantis for trying to be "tough" on immigration.

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"There's nothing tough about using women and children for your own political gain. Governor DeSantis is a coward," Fernandes said. "He is weak."

A statement from Healey's office said it will "evaluate all legal options." But her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, issued a statement blaming Healey for supporting policies that make Massachusetts a "sanctuary state" for immigrants who entered the country illegally. Diehl points to laws, like the recent one granting drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"Providing driver's licenses to those who are not here legally is an incentive to come here to Massachusetts," Diehl said at a rally in Lowell earlier this summer.

Republican candidate for Governor, Geoff Diehl, rallying in Lowell, in July
Republican candidate for Governor, Geoff Diehl, rallying in Lowell, in July. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

Diehl is leading a GOP effort to repeal that law, which will be on the ballot in November.

According to a Suffolk University poll in July, most Massachusetts voters think undocumented residents should have access to driver’s licenses. But David Paleologos, who conducted the survey, said immigration is a potent issue for his conservative base.

"DeSantis will benefit in Florida among core Republican voters with this action " Paleologos said. "And that might be all by design."

The move could also help DeSantis win Republican support in other states, helping position him for a possible presidential run. He received standing ovations in Kansas and Wisconsin in recent days — even if critics in Massachusetts call it cruel and cynical.

This segment aired on September 20, 2022.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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