The year was 2014, a time of heightened tensions over national immigration policy, and President Barack Obama had asked Governor Deval Patrick if Massachusetts would be willing to house several hundred Central American children who had crossed the US-Mexico border.
Just two years prior, Obama had won 61 percent of the vote in the Commonwealth. But not everyone was ready to embrace his proposal.
Patrick, for his part, took the president’s conviction as his own in a tear-filled, forceful speech that invoked the Bible to frame the problem as a moral issue. Some residents quietly thanked him for expressing publicly what they have always believed. But shortly after the speech, Patrick recently recalled, he took a trip to his local Home Depot without security detail, where some shoppers who recognized the governor rushed to condemn his remarks, saying that immigrants who come to the US should do it “the legal way.”
“It’s interesting how we have come to shout our anger and whisper our kindness,” Patrick told the Globe in a recent interview. “It’s upside down.”
Nearly 10 years later, the tensions over national immigration policy are on display in Massachusetts once again, with voters in November slated to weigh in on a Republican-led effort to strip undocumented residents of their recently earned right to a driver’s license. Meanwhile, the world watched as Martha’s Vineyard opened its doors to asylum-seekers after the state was unexpectedly thrown into the national immigration debate by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who sent two planeloads of mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers to the tony island.
And on Wednesday, two South Shore towns scrambled to help more than 100 migrants and homeless people after the state relocated them to the area without advance notice.
The push and pull reflects Massachusetts’ checkered record on immigration policy as a state that lambasted some waves of immigration, such as the Irish in Boston, while later welcoming migrants to work in mill cities.
“Historically, Massachusetts has had a love-hate relationship with immigrants and immigration,” said University of Massachusetts Lowell history professor Robert Forrant, who has focused on Massachusetts history and immigration. “We do this a lot. In COVID, workers in meatpacking and food services, food delivery . . . we wanted those workers. But there is also this argument that they are taking our jobs.”
Immigration, a perennially divisive topic and a rare effective talking point for Republicans in Massachusetts, is at the center of perhaps the only competitive campaign on the November ballot.
The question on the ballot will ask voters whether to uphold a new law that allows people without legal immigration status to obtain driver’s licenses. The law, which goes into effect next summer, allows them to obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport, birth certificate, or marriage certificate.
The law was passed after Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Governor Charlie Baker, who said the measure could threaten election security, among other concerns.
A leader of the push to repeal the law, Maureen Maloney, of Milford, said Massachusetts is too “lenient and sympathetic” on immigration, which she finds “discouraging.”
Her son, Matthew Denice, was killed in 2011 when a truck driven by a man from Ecuador, who did not have legal status, struck his motorcycle and dragged Denice nearly a quarter-mile.
The incident caused Maloney to become more politically active.
“Prior to my son’s death, I wasn’t involved in politics or immigration or anything like that,” said Maloney, who is a state committee member and GOP activist who has joined former president Donald Trump on stage to tell her story. “If people realize how illegal immigration was affecting them, they would think differently about it.”
Patrick, who emphasized that he doesn’t support open borders or full public benefits for undocumented people, was governor at the time of the accident. He met Maloney after her son’s death, which quickly became a political talking point. In the aftermath of Denice’s death, hundreds of people demonstrated against illegal immigration outside Milford’s town hall.
Maloney said she didn’t feel Patrick supported more stringent immigration laws. Patrick said he dealt with matters practically by advocating for national immigration reform and statewide efforts like access to driver’s licenses, which he believes will make roads safer for all residents.
“We are pragmatic, but we are big-hearted, too,” Patrick said. “Those are qualities that can live and beat in the same heart. . . . We don’t have to pile on to make it harder for people than it already is.”
Those who have worked on immigrants’ rights issues say appealing to those in power is no small feat, and that it’s taken years of advocacy and coalition-building to get laws passed. The bill allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrant was nearly two decades in the making.
State Senator Adam Gomez, who was a vocal leader on the bill, also led an effort to make Springfield a so-called sanctuary city when he was on the City Council there, over objections by the city’s mayor.
The work on the driver’s license bill was similarly challenging, he said, and the amount of organizing and activism required to get the legislation enacted proved that there is still lots of advocacy to do.
At times, he said, the divisive rhetoric was “kind of dark.”
“Obviously it’s a historical moment, but how historical is it when we are the 17th state to do so?” the Springfield Democrat said. “It shows us that even in the last 20 years, when it comes to immigration issues, it has always been very contentious.”
Public opinion has shifted over the years. A 2005 Suffolk University poll found that most voters — nearly 80 percent of them — did not support allowing Massachusetts residents without legal status to pay in-state tuition at state colleges or universities. A 2010 poll found that 84 percent of voters supported an Arizona law that cracked down on illegal immigrants. In the same poll, 84 percent of residents said the state should force people to show proof of citizenship or legal status to seek state benefits like public housing or other assistance.
In 2014, a Suffolk poll reported that nearly 70 percent of voters did not support giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
This year, however, nearly 58 percent of voters said they support keeping a law that allows it.
Elizabeth Sweet, an immigration lawyer and executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, has seen an evolution of support.
“We do see that greater sense of appreciation and understanding,” Sweet said. “We have seen tremendous public interest and concern for current and future asylum seekers and a sense that the people in Massachusetts want to welcome and protect people.”
She said the warmth offered by Martha’s Vineyard residents, who assembled to house the migrants in a local church until state aid was organized, is representative of that concern. The pandemic underscored the role of migrants as front-line workers, she said, only further helping people understand the crucial role these populations play in society.
It wasn’t always that way.
Alex Goldstein, a consultant who served as a senior adviser to Patrick, said on issues like driver’s licenses or “secure communities,” a controversial federal program the then-governor opted out of, they often felt isolated. The secure communities program would have referred unauthorized immigrants who were arrested to federal immigration officials for deportation.
At the time, Goldstein said, the administration was bombarded when it even suggested the state get involved with caring for undocumented immigrants.
“In Massachusetts, progress often looks like one step forward, two steps back,” Goldstein said. “You just hope it isn’t more like two or three steps back.”