Are Massachusetts politics on immigration changing? Strategists, activists weigh in.

Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency and asked for federal assistance in August due to the rising number of migrant families in Massachusetts requiring housing from the state’ strained shelter system.

Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency and asked for federal assistance in August due to the rising number of migrant families in Massachusetts requiring housing from the state’ strained shelter system. Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald/TNS

By CASSANDRA DUMAY

For the Recorder

Published: 05-19-2024 10:41 AM

State activists and party organizers from across the political spectrum are determining how to address Massachusetts residents’ new top concern — immigration — going into the 2024 election cycle.

Recent polling by GBH, CommonWealth Beacon and MassINC found that Massachusetts residents were most likely to rank immigration and migration as “the single biggest issue facing state government here,” replacing poll respondents’ usual top priorities, including jobs, housing and the cost of living.

Massachusetts conservatives say this shift in residents’ concerns creates electoral opportunities for the state Republican Party. Progressives and immigrant rights advocates worry that anti-migrant rhetoric will pressure moderate Democrats to be less supportive of new arrivals.

“This was primarily an issue that polled well among Republican primary voters,” said Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “General election voters are now caring about it, and you can even make a strong case that Democratic primary voters are caring about it. So that’s why you start to see a shift.”

The survey found 30% of Republicans and 23% of Independents labeled it the most important, compared to 14% of self-identified Democrats.

Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency and asked for federal assistance in August due to the rising number of migrant families in Massachusetts requiring housing from the state’ strained shelter system. Massachusetts’ right-to-shelter law guarantees emergency housing assistance for people with children and pregnant women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The state has placed limits on the number of families in the emergency shelter program and the length of their stay.

The restrictions stem in part from the number of Massachusetts residents who also in the system as well as a crucial distinction in how migrants are classified, according to Jewish Family Services of MetroWest Executive Director Lino Covarrubias. State government chose the Framingham-based nonprofit to help coordinate care for asylum-seeking families.

He said Massachusetts lacks the resources to address its current situation because the federal government doesn’t consider the large number of Haitian asylum seekers — who come to the state fleeing violence and instability — to be “refugees” or eligible for federal refugee resettlement funding.

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“Refugees are somewhat set up to succeed,” Covarrubias said. “Asylum seekers coming here are not set up to succeed whatsoever. That’s the struggle.”

Logan Trupiano, director of communications for MassGOP, said the struggle to finance services for asylum-seeking families has led to increased interest in conservative politics among Massachusetts residents.

“We’ve been getting reached out to left and right from folks who want to run for office, folks who have changed their affiliation from Democrat to Independent, moving to Republican,” Trupiano said. “We’re seeing a shift going on.”

Democrats comprised 29% of registered voters in 2023, compared to 8.8% Republican and more than 60% “unenrolled” or Independent, continuing a trend away from party affiliation.

Craney said attention toward immigration “creates a tremendous opening” for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and other conservative activists’ messaging about limiting state spending.

The alliance advocates for the right-to-shelter law to be restricted to residents who have lived in the state for six months or more. The organization’s website includes a function to send state leaders an email demonstrating support for a residency requirement. Craney estimated the tool has been used tens of thousands of times, but he said a total count “is not something we’ve made public.”

“People in Massachusetts, while we’re very compassionate, realize this is not a plan that the state could continue to fund,” he said. “People in Massachusetts believe it’s unsustainable. The budget is completely broken because of it.”

But Stephanie Rosario Rodriguez, a senior director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said immigrants are often unfairly made the “scapegoat” for larger economic problems.

“Rents are going up. Food is going up. Everyone’s feeling the pressure, right?” Rodriguez said. “It’s often easier to blame someone else.”

The immigrant rights group promotes the #CourageToWelcome campaign on social media to highlight Massachusetts residents’ desire to support new arrivals to the country. She said public sentiment can make a difference in state policy decisions about whether to continue to address the needs of incoming families.

“Legislators respond to the feelings of their constituents,” Rodriguez said.” “If they feel that their constituents are staunchly opposed to [supporting asylum-seeking families] some might opt to flip because their elections and their campaigns are at risk.”

Jonathan Cohn, policy director of the activist group Progressive Massachusetts, said Democrats who choose to “appease” the most “stridently anti-immigrant voter” pose a more important threat to their party than Republican campaigning.

“Too many Democrats have adopted a conservative framing of an increased number of immigrants and refugees as being a terrible burden, rather than viewing them as people who we should feel so blessed want to live here,” Cohn said. “The bigger issue is Democrats demoralizing their own base by abandoning them than Republicans being energized.”

Before a national bipartisan immigration bill — which included restrictions making it more difficult to seek asylum — was rejected by Senate Republicans earlier this year, progressives and center-left Democrats across the country were split over whether to support it.

A coalition of progressives, such as U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, rejected the legislation, calling it “hateful” and “anti-immigrant.” But some Democrats, including Healey, urged national lawmakers to pass it.

Steve Kerrigan, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairperson, said “concessions in legislation” are necessary in governing, but the party intends to remain consistent in its messaging about showing compassion for new arrivals. He said Democrats will continue to contrast national Republican rhetoric, which “demonizes” immigrants.

“These families who are crossing our border for whatever circumstance are going through some unbelievably horrific times,” Kerrigan said. “The callous nature of those on the other side of the aisle, who are excited to be able to use this as a political issue, are just as bad as Donald Trump.”

But Trupiano said the state-level Republican Party doesn’t take part in “hateful rhetoric.”

“MassGOP is a respectful organization,” Trupiano said. “We want to change people’s perspective on the Republican Party in Massachusetts.”

Craney said accusing conservative groups like the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance of being anti-immigrant is “absurd.”

“Even if you’re willing to understand that the United States needs immigrants, which most of us are, people don’t like what’s happening with the current situation,” Craney said.

He pointed to residents’ frustration over a lack of “transparency” when the state government decides where and how to house families in the shelter system. In Framingham, city officials were given little notice in August when the state placed an initial group of asylum-seeking families in the Red Roof Inn on Cochituate Road.

Democratic political strategist and podcast host Jacquetta Van Zandt agreed that the state could have avoided backlash with more “inclusive and transparent” decision making. But ultimately, she says Massachusetts voters still want to help those in need.

“Massachusetts has always been a state where our humanitarianism comes first,” Van Zandt said.

In his responsibilities leading Jewish Family Services, Covarrubias works directly with both asylum-seeking families in Framingham and policymakers in Massachusetts government. He said while politicians, the public and the press discuss how to address the state’s shelter crisis, it’s important not to forget the “human factor” of the issue.

“These people, these asylum seekers, very much want to be here. They want to work. They’ve gone through a really tough time getting to the U.S.,” Covarrubias said. “They want to see their kids succeed just like anybody else.”

Cassandra Dumay writes for the Greenfield Recorder from the Boston University Statehouse Program.