Massachusetts voters are split on Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 unaccompanied immigrant children on a state air base or military training installation, according to a new Boston Globe poll.
Given the details of Patrick’s proposal, including the fact that the facilities would be staffed and paid for by the federal government and open for up to four months, 50 percent of those polled expressed support, with 43 percent opposed. That’s within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
But on national immigration initiatives, respondents were more skeptical. Asked more broadly whether the migrant children should be allowed to stay in the United States after judicial hearings, only 39 percent answered yes, compared with 43 percent who said the children should be deported.
“This poll is telling us that Massachusetts is more moderate on immigration than people might have thought,” given the state’s generally liberal bent, said John Della Volpe, founder and chief executive of SocialSphere Inc., which conducted the poll.
The greater willingness to accept Patrick’s plan was possibly based on its limited scope, duration, and price tag, Della Volpe said.
“It’s not strong support, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s slightly more support for the more specific shorter-term [plan].”
Meanwhile, only about half of those polled, 52 percent, support a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country illegally. That number is in line with national poll results — surprising some who follow Massachusetts immigration issues, given the state’s reputation for liberalism.
‘Their political antenna is up.’
Unveiled in an emotional speech Friday, Patrick’s plan came in response to what he and other top officials have called a “humanitarian crisis” at the United States’ southwestern border. If children who have illegally crossed into the United States are to come to Massachusetts, Patrick said, they would be housed either at Westover Air Reserve Base in the Western Massachusetts town of Chicopee or at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod.
“The idea of the governor talking about a fairly narrow program, with a beginning and end for a fairly limited number of people, seems to be as far as likely voters are willing to go at this time,” Della Volpe said.
As evidence of that, he noted that on a separate question, only 36 percent of voters support spending state money on the children compared to 57 percent who oppose it.
The poll of 404 likely voters was conducted between July 20 and July 21. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
Well over 50,000 unaccompanied minors — most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — have been taken into custody after illegally crossing the border since last fall. The federal government expects to receive at least 60,000 such children this year, compared with fewer than 14,000 in 2012.
A 2008 law designed to curb the sex trafficking prohibits deporting children from these countries without a court hearing, and federal officials have sought cooperation from states in housing the thousands of minors as they await their day in court.
Of those responding to the poll, 84 percent said they had been following the news of the thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children at the southern border somewhat or very closely.
“Their political antenna is up,” Della Volpe said.
“I wouldn’t have expected it to be more than 60 percent,” said Daniel Kanstroom, associate director of the Boston College Center for Human Rights & International Justice.
Responses to the poll were split heavily along political lines, with 79 percent of Republicans opposing Patrick’s plan and 69 percent of Democrats supporting it. Independents were evenly split. Younger, less affluent voters were generally more likely to support the plan.
“People’s orientation, Democrat or Republican, is not as good a predictor of their opinion about certain aspects of immigration issues as one might think,” Kanstroom said, citing employment as one of several issues that might serve to complicate immigration questions for some progressive voters. For example, labor groups or people concerned about their own employment might be less inclined to favor permissive immigration policies, regardless of their other political leanings.
Immigration issues haven’t always spurred a strong response in Massachusetts, said Franklin Soults, communication director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
“When polled, most Massachusetts voters place immigration very low on their priorities,” Soults said. “I think that’s because it’s only in the past 10 to 20 years that residents are coming to terms with the changing face of Massachusetts.”
Until fairly recently, Soults said, immigrants lived in dense clusters that kept them from fanning out into the community and limited the number who became neighbors and friends to those born here.
“We’re operating under the belief that Massachusetts residents have always been very progressive in their support for many issues,” Soults said. “It’s a process that we think is happening, and we think those numbers will climb higher here.”
Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of Boston-based National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, agreed that immigration of this nature isn’t something Massachusetts voters have had to give much thought to until recently.
But “I still think Massachusetts is in the more progressive side when it comes to immigrants’ rights,” he said.
Reaction among local officials has been mixed, but largely skeptical of the plan and its logistical hurdles. In Chicopee, where Westover would house some of the immigrant children, the mayor and city council president last week expressed reservations about Patrick’s plan.
Mayor Richard J. Kos said the air base is ill-equipped to house children, and George R. Moreau, president of Chicopee’s City Council, said he and his colleagues would have to look into how an influx of migrants might affect social services in the city.
In Bourne, where Joint Base Cape Cod is another possible destination for the children, Town Administrator Thomas M. Guerino said he had mixed feelings about the proposal, citing both skepticism about the details and a humanitarian duty to help.
Kanstroom said complex questions about a decades-long problem like the one at the border are difficult to distill into polling questions.
Soults, of the Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said some in Massachusetts are already stepping up.
“We’re receiving many calls with offers of help — from people offering extra clothes or canned goods, to people actually offering their homes,” Soults said.
The mixed polling results, he added, “shouldn’t obscure the fact that once people do really look hard at this issue, they’re really moved by the plight these children are in.”