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JOAN VENNOCHI

Patrick’s immigrant plan doesn’t add up

With tears in his eyes and religious leaders by his side, Governor Deval Patrick appealed to our better angels as he offered Massachusetts as a temporary refuge for immigrant children who are crossing the border illegally, without adult supervision. But the devil is always in the details, and in this case many details remain fuzzy.

What’s the definition of temporary? Patrick said the children could take shelter here for up to four months, but is that timetable realistic? If Washington lawmakers can’t agree on a funding plan, how can the federal government make good on its promise to absorb all the sheltering costs?

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This may sound unpatriotic and uncharitable, at least by Patrick’s definition, but there’s something very manipulative about the story of these children, from the heart-rending pictures to the language used to describe them.

Increasingly, there’s a move to call them “migrants” versus “immigrants.” That shift in rhetoric is not accidental. “Immigration” is a politically charged word, one that implies permanent relocation to another country. “Migration” is a more sympathetic term, since it’s often connected to people fleeing from a region because of violence or other untenable situations.

That’s the case being presented about these children. Desperate parents are sending them off alone on a perilous flight to escape dangerous conditions in their native country. Who could say no to helping them?

Washington could. When it comes to dealing with the surge in “migrant children,” The New York Times reported, “lawmakers are deadlocked.” Democrats and Republicans agree that they are unlikely to agree on a plan before the end of the month, when Congress takes a five-week recess. Senate Democrats want to appropriate $2.7 billion to ease conditions in overcrowded detention centers. Senate Republicans say they won’t go along with the funding request unless Democrats change a 2008 law to make it easier to send the children back to their native country.

For those who accept the call to help these children on moral grounds, the deadlock in Washington is not reason to say no. But it’s good reason to question how the federal government can keep its promise to absorb all the costs of sheltering children in states that take them in.

There’s something very manipulative about the story of these children.

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Patrick contends reimbursement is not an issue for the state, because federal officials would run any program they set up. “We are not saying, ‘We will run something and you will pay us,’ ” he said Thursday during an appearance on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio. But the public is divided, and many are skeptical. A poll done for the Globe showed that 50 percent of those surveyed support his plan; 43 percent oppose it.

In Chicopee, the site of Westover Air Base, one shelter possibility, local officials have also spoken out against the plan. There’s also opposition in Bourne, where Camp Edwards is a second option.

In some ways, the debate over these kids is not unlike the Massachusetts gambling debate: Some people favor taking care of helpless children in principle, but don’t want their own community to play host. Economics also play a role. The challenges associated with assimilating immigrants fall to poorer cities like Lynn, not wealthy communities like Lincoln.

Something else feels odd about the push to relocate these children. The White House and allies like Patrick are using them to force the issue of immigration reform to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Unfortunately, their plight is not enough to spur an ever-paralyzed Congress to take action on real immigration reform, so it’s left to individual governors to respond.

Patrick, who is not running for re-election, embraces the cause of taking in these children. But other Democratic governors have resisted, including Dan Malloy of Connecticut and Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Meanwhile, in Texas, Republican Governor Rick Perry is sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.

That’s no way to run a country. But it is a slow-motion way to move illegal immigrants into states that will accept them, first as temporary refugees and then, when Congress continues not to act on immigration legislation, as long-term residents. At some future teary press conference, will Patrick announce a plan to reunite all the children with their parents — here in Massachusetts? Even our better angels deserve to know the long-range plan.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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