Gubernatorial Candidates Differ on Issues Affecting Immigrant Communities at Non-Partisan Forum

Six candidates speak on issues from safe driving to language access at talk-show style event

(photo courtesy Suzanne Hinton)

forumbackgroundAugust 14, 2014 BOSTON —Twisting around to look up at the sponsors' logos at last night's gubernatorial candidates forum on issues affecting immigrant communities, Republican candidate Mark Fisher pointed out the word "integration" with approval. It was perhaps the only concept that all the candidates present agreed upon over the course of the 90-minute forum at Bunker Hill Community College.

Organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), the forum was held in a talk show-style format, with each candidate sitting down for a 15-minute discussion with moderator Phillip Martin, Senior Investigative Reporter at WGBH-FM. Though Republican Charlie Baker and independent Mark Lively declined the invitation, the six candidates in attendance spanned the gamut, including independents Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick, and all three Democratic primary candidates, Don Berwick, Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman. Phillip Martin set a friendly, engaged tone with his questions, and the audience of over 200 listened with polite reserve, yet sharp differences between the candidates’ positions still poked up beneath their smooth words.


Mr. Fisher's positions stood out perhaps most sharply of all. Despite his willingness to "foster any opportunity, and more opportunities," for immigrants to learn English in pursuit of integration, he opposed language access requirements that try to ensure all residents can communicate with health care, education and social service agencies, as required by Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Let's raise the bar," he explained, by not encouraging immigrants "to keep the training wheels on longer than they're needed."

His stance on undocumented immigrants was equally uncompromising. Like all candidates, Fisher addressed the story of Josue, an immigrant who was stopped by police outside Fitchburg while driving back from a picnic with his family, and then held for months in detention as his family of five children suffered economic and psychological hardship. Fisher reacted to Josue's potential deportation with firm dispassion. "Are there reasons for deportation, and is coming into this country illegally one of them?" he asked rhetorically. "I would say yes."

As Fisher left, he drew the sole audience interjection of the evening. "No person is illegal!" a woman remarked.

Like Fisher, independent candidate Jeff McCormick opposed the offer extended by Governor Patrick to temporarily house unaccompanied children from Central America (an offer recently declined by Washington), but as Phillip Martin noted, McCormick's position on this and other issues also earn him the term "independent." In place of a government response to the crisis, McCormick suggested rallying a private response among "people with the means to do it" (His wife suggested taking in two of the children themselves). On the issue of driver's license access, McCormick noted he'd developed his stance after speaking with immigrants, insurance agents, and law enforcement.

"The patrolmen and the state troopers and the sheriffs I talked to, they said, ‘Jeff, would you rather have safe drivers on the road or not?’ That’s what this comes down to. Immigration issues are a separate issue… I think the next governor ought to get law enforcement to stand up and say, ‘You know what? This is just SMART. This is going to help people.’ Who would choose the opposite?"

Attorney General Martha Coakley acknowledged that, earlier in her career, she had chosen the opposite. With the failure of current immigration reform efforts in Washington, she seems to have revised her opinion to some degree."I’ve looked at proposed statutes that are pending. I think there are some plusses and minuses to the language," she noted. However, "I’ve said to MIRA and to other groups that I have talked to that I’m willing to work with them on how we do that."

The Attorney General also vaguely opposed the Secure Communities program that has embroiled Josue in deportation hearings, while stressing her commitment to immigrant language access and to fighting human trafficking. She closed by stressing the importance of "being inclusive," including by supporting in-state tuition rates "as our Governor has."

The remaining candidates went further in their affirmations of issues that have often been raised by immigrant advocates. Evan Falchuk, son a white Venezuelan immigrant, noted that "police are stopping people of color more than they stop someone who looks like me," and stressed that the broken immigration system has not been fixed because of "cowardly political leaders who want to make cheap political points over people’s lives." In line with his commitment to an independent road to the corner office, Falchuk noted both the "decadence of the current political process," and his optimism for entrepreneurial efforts among immigrants. However, Falchuk also viewed the government as a potential partner to immigrant success. "The state has a great role to play in helping [immigrant] businesses grow and thrive and prosper," he said. "Those are the seeds that get planted that turn into thriving, blossoming communities."

Treasury Secretary Steve Grossman likewise stressed his family's immigrant story and the importance of immigrant entrepreneurs, and he made clear his support for the "concept of the Trust Act" (to limit the Secure Communities' program's impact) and for a driver's license bill. Even if this position causes his loss of the governorship, he stressed, "I promise you I will put my head down on my pillow for the rest of my life knowing I did the right thing."

Grossman was the only candidate to draw applause from the audience during his comments, especially after his strong, statistic-laden defense of an in-state tuition bill allowing for "better educated kids able to contribute to the innovation economy." (The bill would make long-time Massachusetts students eligible for in-state tuition regardless of immigration status.) The Treasury Secretary was also the only candidate to stay well after the end of the forum, as he spoke with a small throng of immigrant students, answering individual questions.

Dr. Don Berwick, who drew the opening spot by luck of alphabetical order, went even further in his broad support for immigrant rights with a flurry of statistics, from the drop-out rate of 25% for Latino high school students, often due to shortfalls of language accessibility, to the fact that 60% of the state's new businesses are started by first generation immigrants. After voicing his support for in-state tuition, a driver's license bill, and the Trust Act, he connected many of the struggles immigrants face to the broader struggle against poverty. "My run for governor is extremely focused on the relief and I hope the end of poverty," he said, adding that it dovetails with his opposition to casinos as "predators" on people living in poverty. As for the integration of immigrants, whatever their status, Berwick summed it up in a passing phrase."If they're among us, they're of us."

The evening also included a warm welcome by Dr. Pam Eddinger, President of Bunker Hill Community College, who stressed the deep importance of immigrants to the college's mission. The event was co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; Bunker Hill Community College; Emerson College's Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement; Health Care for All; the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers; Massachusetts Law Reform Institute; and MassVote, with further endorsement by English for New Bostonians, the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, and the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys.