Six of the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates were grilled on a number of controversial issues during an immigration forum Wednesday night in Charlestown, including drivers licenses for undocumented residents and the federal Secure Communities program.
Democrat Steve Grossman was among the candidates who blasted Secure Communities, which includes a provision for local police, at the request of federal authorities, to hold arrested immigrants for possible deportation, even after they have posted bail or been ordered released.
Supporters say the program is a vital public safety tool, while critics point to records showing that roughly half of the more than 1,200 people deported from the Commonwealth through the initiative since 2008 have not had a criminal record.
In his critique, Grossman, the state treasurer, took a swipe at Attorney General Martha Coakley, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination who has previously supported the program but is now raising concerns.
Speaking of Secure Communities, Grossman said he understands, “unlike our attorney general, that this is profoundly problematic.”
The forum was held at Bunker Hill Community College and organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Coakley said the original intent of Secure Communities was to ensure that “the most dangerous of predators” were held, but the initiative has not worked that way in practice.
She pledged to work as governor with US officials to improve the program, adding that the state had hoped federal immigration reform, which remains stalled in Washington, would have provided solutions to detainee issues.
“Clearly, if people are dangerous they need to be detained” regardless of immigration status, she added.
Other hot-button topics at the forum, which more than 200 people attended, included Governor Deval Patrick’s recent offer to house 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children at military bases in Chicopee and on Cape Cod. The plan drew strong opposition from some local officials and members of the public in both areas.
It was shelved earlier this month when the federal government said it would not need the shelters.
On Wednesday night, Republican Mark Fisher pointedly criticized Patrick’s initial offer, saying that municipalities are already overburdened by the influx of undocumented immigrants.
“We are a compassionate people,” he said. “We are already housing over 200,000 illegal immigrants.”
Jeff McCormick, an independent candidate, said one solution could be for interested families to take in unaccompanied migrant children, rather than asking the state to provide shelter. He said many families are on long waiting lists to adopt children.
The forum moderator, reporter Phillip Martin of WGBH-FM radio, also asked the candidates if they would support allowing residents to obtain drivers licenses, regardless of their immigration status. That proposal has stalled on Beacon Hill for several years amid considerable acrimony.
Democrat Donald Berwick, independent Evan Falchuk, McCormick, and Grossman all support the measure on public safety grounds.
Coakley, who has opposed the proposal in the past, said that if elected she would appoint a director of immigration and safety who would help determine the best policy options for safe driving.
Fisher said he opposes allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses.
Republican Charlie Baker, Fisher’s primary opponent and the favorite for the GOP nomination, did not attend the forum. A spokesman for his campaign said that he had a scheduling conflict.