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OPINION

Congressional redistricting map misses the chance to fully empower South Coast’s immigrant communities

Why keeping Fall River and New Bedford together in one congressional district is the equitable thing to do.

Some are urging lawmakers to reverse their proposal to split New Bedford and Fall River into separate congressional districts for the next decade.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

US Representative Bill Keating is not exactly the most high profile or vocal member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. But Keating, who represents the Ninth District, has been adamant and forceful in his opposition to the Legislature’s proposed new congressional districts — a proposal that has caused great controversy for its failure to put together the sizeable cities of Fall River and New Bedford in the same district.

“I’m not going to be around for 10 years,” Keating told the Globe’s Matt Stout. “This does nothing but weaken the ability of people in that area to have their voices be heard in a concerted way, to organize, to have candidates. . . . It’s just wrong. It’s as wrong as you can do something.” The Ninth currently includes New Bedford and part of Fall River. “Can I be more vehement? I can try,” Keating said.

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The South Coast region is divided over the state’s redistricting plan, a wonky, uninspired endeavor that the public typically struggles to get excited about. But the stakes are high. Redistricting, which has to follow certain guidelines by law, is about defining and deciding political power. And in Massachusetts, the kingmaker is the heavily Democratic Legislature.

The redistricting committee’s proposal for a new congressional map has been called unjust and inequitable by advocates who are pushing lawmakers to move the rest of Fall River to Keating’s district.

The remaining parts of Fall River fall under the Fourth District, represented by Jake Auchincloss. Instead of folding the rest of Fall River into the Ninth, it was made whole under Auchincloss’s district, a move that some political observers say benefits Auchincloss politically. (Last year, Auchincloss won Fall River in the highly contentious Democratic primary for the Fourth District seat left open by Joseph P. Kennedy III.)

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The issue dominated a State House hearing earlier this week. “I hear [both cities described as] immigrant communities and I look at the numbers: Fall River is 71 percent non-Hispanic white,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, cochair of the committee. He was comparing it to New Bedford, where 40 percent of the population are people of color. “I don’t see a thriving immigrant community [in Fall River], at least by the numbers.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth, said Dax Crocker. Crocker, an immigrant from Guatemala, is a community organizer with the Coalition for Social Justice, which has offices in Fall River and New Bedford.

“That hurts immigrants of all kinds for [Moran] to say that,” Crocker told me. “If you’re Hispanic, then you’re [automatically] an immigrant? That’s what he’s alluding to.” There is a thriving community in the South Coast made up mainly of Portuguese immigrants, Crocker said. It includes recent arrivals, as well as second- and third-generation immigrants. “We have many young people who were not born here and that, for the most part, come from the islands, the Azores and Madeira.” The Portuguese in Fall River may be counted as “white,” he said, but they have more in common with their New Bedford neighbors than with residents of Newton or Wellesley, communities that are also part of the Fourth.

Brazilians — one of the largest immigrant groups in the Commonwealth — have also been moving to the South Coast because of the language connection to the Portuguese population. There’s also a robust Cape Verdean population, Crocker pointed out.

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Some Fall River elected officials are against the South Coast combination because they don’t want Fall River’s needs and priorities to come after those of New Bedford, where political power is more developed and stronger. “Fall River will be the biggest city in the Massachusetts Fourth and will no longer stand in any community’s shadow or be second to another community’s needs,” a group of Fall River leaders and elected officials wrote in a joint statement.

They believe that the two cities would be competing for scarce resources and attention from Keating, their representative in Congress. “Fall River’s fear is that they’re going to come second to New Bedford,” Crocker said. “But if separated from New Bedford [and kept by itself in the Fourth District], Fall River will not be second — it will be last because Newton and Brookline and the rest are going to come first.”

The Viva Fall River mural on South Main Street. Some are urging lawmakers to reverse their proposal to split New Bedford and Fall River into separate congressional districts for the next decade. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Drawing Democracy Coalition argues that the two cities already share combined regional institutions — such as the One SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce, whose clout is flexed routinely — and a health care operator, Southcoast Health Systems.

“I saw firsthand how often the South Coast has to fight twice as hard for half as much,” Kennedy, Auchincloss’s predecessor, said in a statement distributed by the coalition. “Unifying New Bedford and Fall River into one congressional district will create an essential power center for all of the South Coast’s families, particularly the working-class and immigrant communities that anchor the region.”

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Kennedy is right.

Regardless of this particular outcome, one thing is clear: It’s past time for Massachusetts to move to an independent redistricting process instead of keeping the heavily Democratic legislative chambers on Beacon Hill in charge of redrawing districts.

Redrawing the new map is a zero-sum game. Any move creates a domino effect that is bound to impact the composition of all the districts — and, crucially, incumbents’ chances of getting reelected. But in netting out the new districts, let’s not make immigrants in the South Coast region losers in this game.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.