Immigration becomes a hot topic in Mass politics. after migrants were brought to Martha’s Vineyard

When Governor Ron DeSantis ferried four dozen migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week, he was probably thinking first and foremost about how it would play out in his home state of Florida.

But the controversial move also put immigration at the center of Massachusetts politics.

Shortly after the planes touched down on Martha’s Vineyard, a Republican running for state attorney general issued a press release targeting prominent Massachusetts Democrats.

“Maura Healey and Andrea Campbell have been welcoming illegal immigrants to the state for years,” Jay McMahon said in the statement. The Cape Cod attorney hopes 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 support lax immigration policies that jeopardize public safety. In an interview with WBUR, he said his heart goes out to migrants, but they should be dealt with by law enforcement, not welcomed as new residents.

“It’s not a community issue where we just welcome everyone who’s poor and say, ‘We’re going to take care of them, give them health care and all that,'” he said.

McMahon wondered aloud why the state managed to quickly house Venezuelan migrants at a military base on Cape Cod, but would not offer similar assistance to homeless veterans. He also said he sympathizes with southern governors, like DeSantis, who claim to be overwhelmed by waves of migrants.

Jay McMahon speaks at the 2018 Republican State Convention in Worcester during his first run for Attorney General. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

In contrast, McMahon’s Democratic opponent in the race for attorney general, Campbell, lambasted DeSantis for what she described as a “cruel political stunt” that targeted families, women and children.

“I’m proud of the people of the Vineyard – the elected officials and everyone who stepped up to make sure every person who came in was received with compassion,” Campbell said on MSNBC. “That’s what we are here in Massachusetts. And frankly, that’s what Democrats do, not political stunts.”

Attorney General candidate Andrea Campbell is flanked by United States Representative Ayanna Pressley, left, and Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey during a canvassing event at America's Food Basket in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Sept. 3, 2022. (Craig F Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Attorney General candidate Andrea Campbell is flanked by United States Representative Ayanna Pressley, left, and Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey during a canvassing event at America’s Food Basket in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Sept. 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, argue that migrants are not “illegal immigrants”.

Espinoza-Madrigal, who represents many migrants, said her clients surrendered to immigration officials at the border and are now legally in the country pending their hearings. And if any laws were broken, Espinoza-Madrigal said they were broken by the people who tricked migrants into coming to Massachusetts with false promises of housing, jobs and legal assistance.

“It’s a fraud,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “And that 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 responsible parties.”

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

speaking on NBC On Sunday, Fernandes slammed DeSantis for trying to be “tough” on immigration.

“There’s nothing hard 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 he would “evaluate all legal options.” But his Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, issued a statement accusing Healey of supporting policies that make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state” for immigrants who entered the country illegally. Diehl cites laws, such as the recent granting driver’s 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 gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl rallies in Lowell, July
Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl rallying at Lowell in July. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

Diehl is leading a GOP effort to repeal that law, which will pass in November.

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

“DeSantis will benefit Florida among mainstream Republican voters with this action,” Paleologos said. “And maybe that’s quite on purpose.”

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

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