In his bid for reelection, Senator Scott Brown is calling for tighter immigration policy and chiding his leading Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, for her seeming opposition to the federal enforcement program known as Secure Communities.
But Warren refuses to be pinned down on the heated issue, calling for a more nuanced debate. Though in the past she has appeared to oppose the initiative, Warren would not declare a position last week, instead calling for further discussion with police about how the program has been working in other states.
“Let’s see if we can make this absolutely clear: Everyone wants to see violent offenders off the streets. Everyone,’’ Warren said. “Any law that helps pull violent offenders off the street is good. But I follow the police and other officials who raised concerns that they don’t want to see a law that separates the police officers from the communities they serve. That doesn’t promote anyone’s safety.’’
The Secure Communities program would share information on suspects arrested by local police departments with customs and immigration officials for possible deportation.
Though immigration is less of a volatile issue in Massachusetts than on the national stage, it could help the Senate candidates here define themselves to voters and appeal to certain contingencies. As such, some analysts see their positions as carefully aimed to attract, or at least not alienate, a constituency that could be vital in this election: middle-class white men.
Jeffrey Berry, a professor at Tufts University, said Brown’s position on immigration could play well in blue-collar communities that are largely white. The Republican would be unlikely to win the Hispanic vote anyway, Berry said, particularly this year when the GOP candidates running for president have taken a hard-line stance on immigration.
“I think there is some mileage in this for Senator Brown,’’ said Berry.
Warren, meanwhile, showed weakness among white males and “middle-of-the-road democrats’’ in a recent poll, Berry noted. So she may be walking a fine line with her stance to avoid losing that vote.
The Secure Communities program was piloted in Boston in 2006, but Governor Deval Patrick has refused to adopt it statewide, saying that involving local police in immigration enforcement could lead to racial profiling and foster distrust of police in the immigrant community.
The governor has maintained his position, despite pressure from Brown and other politicians following several high-profile arrests.
When an illegal immigrant from Ecuador was accused of striking and killing a motorcyclist in Milford while driving drunk last summer, Patrick stood firm, saying “Illegal immigration didn’t kill this person. A drunk driver killed this person.’’
Last month, that immigrant’s brother, who is also in the country illegally, was accused of stabbing a man with a kitchen knife during a house party, prompting another round of rebukes from Brown.
“It is unacceptable that there are people in the country illegally who are also committing serious crimes and threatening public safety. It’s time we applied some common sense before more people are hurt or killed,’’ Brown said in a statement.
To Democratic media analyst Dan Payne, the Republican senator’s strategy was clear: “I think this is a case where Brown’s handlers are trying to drive a wedge between Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick,’’ said Payne. “They want her to criticize Deval - or conversely, to say, ‘I do whatever the governor tells me to do.’ ’’
Still, Payne said, Warren must take a clear stand on the issue.
“It’s the kind of thing that if you are a law school professor, you should have thought about it,’’ and formulated an opinion, he said.
Warren has made previous public comments that made her sound like an opponent of the program, leading Brown to target her.
“She’s opposed to it,’’ Brown recently told the Globe. “It’s a shame, really, because we could be leaders in this area. The sheriffs want it. They want that additional tool in the tool box to be able to deal with these people that are hurting and killing our citizens. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m not quite sure why she doesn’t support this.’’
In an interview, Warren suggested that Brown was trying to inflame the issue. “I understand, Scott Brown wants to play politics. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s just kind of same-old politician stuff,’’ she said.
But she declined to state an unequivocal position on the program, applauding its intent while questioning its efficacy.
Warren said that if elected, she would want to study the subject further and seek guidance from law enforcement officials who deal most closely with the issue. But in Massachusetts, some sheriffs have backed the program, while some police chiefs have raised concerns about it.
On Monday, the MassGOP arranged a conference call between reporters and two Republican sheriffs who blasted the “Harvard professor’’ for her opposition. They noted that the program has support of President Obama and his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano.
Another Democratic challenger in the race, Marisa DeFranco, is an immigration lawyer in Middletown who opposes the Secure Communities program. “Turning police into federal agents, you’re going to shut down community policing,’’ she said.
The third Democratic candidate, James Coyne King, could not be reached.
Last summer, Mayor Thomas M. Menino threatened to pull Boston out of the program, out of concern that federal authorities were targeting immigrants who were arrested on minor offenses.
But Boston remains a participant. And the federal government intends to expand Secure Communities nationally next year, regardless of states’ consent.
Now, 2,300 jurisdictions in 45 states participate in the program.
“The Commonwealth kind of sticks out like a sore thumb,’’ said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a national nonpartisan think tank. Last month, a national poll found that most voters want border control but remain concerned that enforcement efforts will end up violating the civil rights of some US citizens.
Vaughan said that for Massachusetts residents it should be a “no-brainer’’ to target for deportation illegal immigrants who were arrested on other charges.