Using his strongest language yet on US immigration policy, Governor Deval Patrick in a speech Monday lambasted controversial immigration laws adopted by Arizona and Alabama.
“The actions of various states to take matters into their own hands have been ham-fisted, self-defeating, and even racist,’’ Patrick said at Tufts University.
Patrick’s address, at the Aidekman Arts Center, was part of the “Moral Voices’’ lecture series sponsored by Tufts Hillel, the university’s center for Jewish life.
The governor has generally been critical of such measures as the federal Secure Communities Law, which requires police to share information on arrested suspects with customs and immigration officials. he has also been critical of legislation requiring police to check immigration status in Arizona and Alabama.
But the tone of Patrick’s speech Monday - he called much of the debate surrounding immigration reform “hysterical and poisonous’’ - has struck some state lawmakers and immigration policy specialists as more vehement than before.
“The public discourse about immigration is as toxic today as McCarthyism or Jim Crow were in their time,’’ Patrick said. “Now, like then, the debate seems to be based more on emotion than reason, more on slogan than fact.’’
Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she was not surprised by the content of Patrick’s speech - she has always agreed with his stance on immigration - but was struck by its particularly brash tone.
“It’s very strong wording that really speaks to [Governor Patrick’s] belief, to his understanding, to his vision for a stronger America,’’ Millona said.
After initial waffling, Patrick refused to embrace the Secure Communities program.
In 2010, Patrick spoke out against the Arizona immigration law, which requires that police check immigration status when they make stops or arrests. He said its primary purpose was “stirring up fear.’’
Jessica Vaughan - director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that researches US immigration policy - said the governor’s fiery words Monday were a political mistake.
“The language he chooses is just as loaded and charged as the rhetoric of the people that he’s criticizing - maybe even more so,’’ Vaughan said. “I don’t think he could get away with giving that speech anywhere other than a college campus.’’
Vaughan said Patrick’s speech suggests that the governor will not be open to compromise and across-the-aisle discussion in upcoming talks about immigration legislation on Beacon Hill.
Additionally, she said, many US citizens feel the impact of illegal immigration in their daily lives, in terms of safety and job opportunities. It is insensitive to brush aside their concerns as ignorant, she said.
“Americans want to have a discussion about real solutions,’’ Vaughan said, “not be told that they’re hateful.’’
For Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House Republican leader, Patrick’s take on the Alabama and Arizona legislation seemed unreasonable. Because Arizona shares a border with Mexico, that state faces challenges a Massachusetts leader cannot fully understand.
Jones said Patrick would have done better to invite discussion with leaders on the other end of the political spectrum, instead of calling them names.
“He used this as an opportunity to cast aspersions and throw stones,’’ Jones said. “He’s basically labeling people who have a different opinion from his as Jim Crow and McCarthy, which I found patently offensive. He should be better than that.’’
Jones said he believes the heightened rhetoric in Monday’s speech was part of an effort to curry favor with the state’s Latino voting bloc.
In the speech, Patrick called US visa procedures “Byzantine,’’ preventing businesses and universities from recruiting talent from overseas and discriminating against potential newcomers based on income level.
He placed much of the blame for immigration issues on state political leaders.
“Some are unable to resist the political opportunity to appear ‘tough’ on illegal immigration, such as in states like Arizona and Alabama,’’ Patrick said.
But Patrick placed ultimate culpability on the federal government, which, he said, has failed to adequately address US immigration policy.
“It has been the consequence of the failure of action in [Washington] D.C.; that much we have to acknowledge,’’ Patrick said. “The Congress has yet to pass a transportation bill to secure the future of our public infrastructure; has yet to prevent interest rates on student loans from doubling. . . . In the circumstances, it’s no surprise that people want states to do the federal government’s job on immigration.’’
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz - a Democrat whose district includes the South End, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain - said Patrick’s speech reflected many of her own concerns about the tenor of the debate surrounding immigration issues.
His words, she said, were inspiring because Patrick talked about the ways in which the country is falling short of providing equal opportunities to all residents.
Chang-Diaz dismissed concerns that Patrick’s speech was as vitriolic as the rhetoric he criticizes.
“You’ve got to call them like you see them,’’ Chang-Diaz said. “Being a good statesman and a good policy maker isn’t always about being middle-of-the-road.’’
Although Patrick spoke primarily about national immigration policy, he did address one local event, the 2007 raid by federal immigration officials in New Bedford.
He recalled how Immigration and Customs Enforcement “and other law enforcement officials surrounded the plant and systematically arrested every black or brown employee . . . hundreds of working poor, many of whom spoke little English, were separated from their spouses and, in some cases, their small children, and flown to Texas for holding until their cases could be processed.
“The night following the raid, I visited the family members left behind; they sat, huddled and dazed, in the basement of a New Bedford church,’’ he said. “. . . ICE lauded the raid as law enforcement at its best. I was embarrassed.’’Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.