Governor playing politics with ICE amendment

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When it's an election year, no subject is off the table when it comes to prying — or scaring — a few votes out of people. Despite prognostications by political handicappers that barring some scandal, Republican Governor Charlie Baker is the odds-on favorite to win re-election, the governor — an experienced politician — probably figures that it never hurts to take advantage of targets of opportunity, particularly if there is a hot-button issue to flog.

Last week, state Senator Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, obligingly supplied him with one in the form of an amendment that seeks to clarify some aspects of the relationship between state and local law enforcement agencies and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To hear the governor tell it, the amendment — attached to budget legislation because it concerns Massachusetts taxpayer expenditures on law enforcement activities — would effectively gag any state or local official from sharing information with ICE, thereby endangering the safety of the commonwealth. In his denunciation of the amendment, which passed the Senate 25-13, he used words like "ridiculous" and "outrageous," and vowed to veto the measure if it ever reached his desk.

An examination of the amendment's text is instructive: "Nothing in this section shall prohibit or restrain the commonwealth, any political subdivision thereof, or any employee or agent of the commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions, from sending to, or receiving from, any local, state, or federal agency, information regarding citizenship or immigration status..." In other words, the level of cooperation with ICE is left to the discretion of individual law enforcement agencies. A day after passage of the amendment, the governor made the following statement: "I don't believe the state should be stepping into this. And I especially don't believe that we should pass legislation that makes it impossible for the state of Massachusetts — with criminals who are currently in our prisons and have been convicted of terrible crimes and may be here illegally — that we should not be allowed to talk to the feds."

Senator Eldridge is right to openly wonder if the governor even bothered to read the text of his amendment before condemning it. The measure would prohibit police questioning about someone's immigration status and forbid state and local law enforcement personnel from entering into "287G" agreements, whereby ICE is empowered to conscript such personnel to help round up suspects charged with federal immigration crimes. Police chiefs around the Berkshires and the state have expressed concern that their departments will lose trust in immigrant communities if they are perceived as federal agents.

Governor Baker may not be wrong if he assesses that there are Democrats and independents among the Massachusetts electorate who view the whole subject with apprehension. Some might even be persuaded to ignore all the other challenges facing the state to cast their ballot based on the illusion that the commonwealth is in danger of succumbing to a threat from foreign hordes streaming across the nation's borders. This would be a product of the Trump White House's bashing of immigrants and the confusion arising over the inaccurate term of "sanctuary" cities, which wrongly implies that criminals are somehow safely beyond the law.

Their gullibility, however, does not justify the governor's over-the-top remarks, nor does it throw a cloak of respectability over this particular political strategy. The governor is the leader of the state, and the tone of discourse — in a phrase that has recently gained currency at the national level — is set from the top. Mr. Baker has plenty of legitimate achievements he can point to with pride to support his bid for another four years in office; he doesn't have to resort to such incendiary rhetoric. The voters he hopes to convince deserve better.

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