WORCESTER — On a two-day tour of Massachusetts to kick off his campaign for US Senate, Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III spent early Sunday afternoon with perhaps an unlikely group: LGBTQ asylum seekers and recipients who won’t be US voters for years, if ever.
“Our system needs comprehensive immigration reform,” Kennedy told more than 30 immigrants from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community who have received assistance from the LGBT Asylum Task Force based at Hadwen Park Congregational Church.
“Our entire immigration system needs a complete structural overhaul,” Kennedy continued, going on to say that the current system often treats immigrants and refugees like criminals, “rather than people fleeing persecution, violence, destitution, and other forms of oppression.”
Kennedy’s visit to the church was his third campaign event of the day, as he returned from an east-to-west journey across the state Saturday launching his insurgent campaign against a fellow Democrat, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey, who also faces two other challengers: labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and businessman Steve Pemberton.
Kennedy’s Worcester visit was bracketed by appearances in Pittsfield and Springfield in the morning and afternoon events in New Bedford and Attleboro.
Kennedy listened to personal stories and took questions from asylum seekers and recipients from Uganda, Kenya, Jamaica, Honduras, Turkey, and Jordan.
Lee Williams, 41, recounted his struggles and those of friends in his native Jamaica, where, he said, “It is illegal to be LGBTQ+ and punishable by law.”
“I have been attacked. I’ve been beaten up on several occasions. I was shot at. I was held at gunpoint in my office and threatened to be killed,” Williams said, going on to recall an incident when Jamaican police tried to blackmail him by threatening to “out” him as gay.
“The torture and constant threats forced me to flee my country, flee my job,” he said.
His LGBTQ friends who remained in Jamaica include a dentist who, he said, “was stabbed to death three years ago. He was killed and left to bleed to death in his car. His body was found the next day in a remote location.” Last year, Williams said, another friend “was shot seven times in his back as he was teaching a class.”
Looking at the black and brown faces in the church pews, Kennedy drew parallels between their experiences and those of his ancestors, denouncing political rhetoric that frames immigrants as a drain on American society rather than contributors to the nation’s wealth and vitality.
“Both sides of my family came to this country fleeing destitution and persecution: my mother’s family a long time ago for religious freedom, my father’s family fleeing famine and oppression in Ireland,” he said.
“That is something to be celebrated, not something to be looked down on or dismissed.”
Williams said in an interview that he was impressed with Kennedy’s message and would vote for him next year, if he were a citizen.
“I think he’s in tune with what’s really happening in terms of immigration and the reforms that . . . need to take place,” Williams said. “I think he gets us as asylum-seekers. He understands that there’s a difference between just regular refugees and people who are seeking asylum for different reasons.”
Earlier Sunday, Worcester residents who spoke to a reporter outside a busy supermarket expressed a range of reactions to Kennedy’s challenge to Markey.
“I don’t think he needs to run for Senate,” said Tanya Paixao, 51. “I think that Markey’s doing a fine job, and I think that —” she lowered her voice “ — I’m kind of sick of the Kennedys. I hate to say that because I like them!”
Paixao is a registered Democrat and longtime admirer of the storied political clan, she said, but she questioned Kennedy’s motives and said she thinks his family may be too politically active and influential.
“Give somebody else a chance!” she said, though she added that she would keep an open mind about his candidacy.
Judie Wright, 75, said she likes Kennedy but, “I think he’s too young to go for the Senate. I think he needs a little bit more experience. . . . I think he’s a great kid.”
Wright added that she has always found Markey to be honest and credible, and his long experience in Washington — the 73-year-old has been in Congress longer than 38-year-old Kennedy has been alive — will work in his favor.
“I think he’s the wrong person for Joe to run against,” she said, but added that she likes Kennedy “a lot.”
Later, a Globe reporter asked Kennedy what he would say to voters who think he should have waited.
“If the concern is: ‘You don’t have the experience’ — I’ve been in the House of Representatives now for seven years; I feel pretty fluent in the policy, the processes, the way in which our government works and the ways in which it doesn’t,” he said.
“If the question is kind of, ‘Why now?’ ” he added later, “how much worse does our politics and processes need to get before you say, ‘OK, fine, let me do something more’?”