By defaming whole segments of the state population, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is pushing the political rhetoric in Massachusetts into dangerous, Trumpian territory. Immigration is a touchy subject, and pending legislation that would limit local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities deserves a full and frank debate. But voters need to insist that elected officials step back from divisive, even incendiary, posturing that tears at the fabric of the Commonwealth.
Hodgson, a longtime critic of illegal immigration, crossed the line of decency during a recent Beacon Hill hearing on the legislation, which he opposes. At the hearing, Hodgson blithely asserted that Massachusetts communities are exposed to “more crime by illegals being here,” an unsupported and untrue attack. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz pushed back: “I’m wondering if you have any evidence to substantiate that claim? . . . What I’m looking for is statistical information and evidence rather than anecdotal.”
The sheriff was momentarily stumped — as if someone had challenged Joseph McCarthy to produce his list of communists. But he said he would get the data for the committee.
The sheriff’s office never followed up with the promised statistics. That is, until the Globe started asking questions about it last week. On Thursday, the sheriff’s public information officer e-mailed Chang-Diaz’s office with some cherry-picked numbers from the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research center that favors low immigration. None of the data Hodgson’s office provided supported his claim that crime is higher in Massachusetts communities where undocumented immigrants live. One data point “shows that a disproportionate number of noncitizens are committing certain types of crimes, including drug trafficking, murder, fraud, kidnapping, etc.,” according to Jessica M. Vaughan of the center. “But saying “noncitizens” is vastly different than “undocumented immigrants.” She then added: “Somewhere I have a similar table that shows how many of them are illegal, but I will have to search my nonfunctioning computer for that one at another time.”
How very convenient. The reality is that years of comprehensive research has found no link whatsoever between illegal immigration and high crime rates. In fact, the research shows that the opposite is true. One analysis this year found that concentrations of undocumented immigrants were associated with lower violent-crime rates.
That Hodgson has chosen to spread such malignant rhetoric linking immigrants and crime is perhaps no surprise, given some of his history. Among Hodgson’s greatest hits of embarrassing — and in some cases, plainly illegal — proposals: He infamously implemented a program in 2002 charging inmates a rent of $5 per night spent in jail and, in 1999, he made his inmates wear shackles while working in an initiative he called “tandem work crews.”
More recently, the sheriff has also been on the news for the disproportionately high rate of suicides in the jails he oversees, which is a problem that might entail a better use of his time. The day after he attended the immigration hearing at the State House, an inmate committed suicide at the jail in North Dartmouth.
There’s a temptation, faced with an elected official like Hodgson, to lump all his outrages together. But the sort of sweeping denunciations and factless innuendo that Hodgson is trafficking in the immigration debate are uniquely poisonous. Hodgson won reelection unopposed last year, and he has the right to his personal views. But Massachusetts deserves better than elected officials who use their office to distort and inflame.
Correction: Because of wrong information from a source, an editorial on June 25 about Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson misattributed a quotation about noncitizens who commit crimes. The quote should have been attributed to Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies, Center for Immigration Studies. This editorial has been updated to correct the error.