Then, too, there’s the large number of legal immigrants who call Massachusetts home — some of whom belong to the aforementioned trade unions, and some of whom think that, since they had to jump through certain hoops to settle in the US, so should everybody else, dammit. “Go to the North End and ask 10 guys on the street about illegal immigrants and the in-state tuition bill, or them taking jobs from people,” says one Republican strategist. “I tell you what — they’ll probably be very anti-illegal-immigrant.”
From Healey’s point of view, that’s the beauty of the illegal-immigration issue. It pits Democrat against Democrat, and increases the likelihood of Election Day defections to the GOP. (Healey must think it’s a winner among independents, too, since she also needs to win over un-enrolled voters, who make up over half the Massachusetts electorate.) Last week, as if responding on cue, Democrats found themselves grasping for ways to retain the loyalties of anti-immigration voters.
“There’s a sense that, when times are bad, people want to blame somebody else,” says a source close to Gabrieli. “The perception is, ‘State government isn’t doing anything for me, but for some person who came here illegally, the government’s helping them. It’s giving them a handout.’ That drives people crazy. . . . As a Democrat, you have to inoculate yourself in some way against that attack.”
This conviction explains why Gabrieli — who was slow to knock the in-state tuition proposal in a Phoenix interview held near the beginning of his campaign — has sharpened his anti-illegal-immigrant tone as of late. But while there’s recent precedent for this sort of 11th-hour liberal shift rightward (e.g., Bill Clinton’s support for welfare reform), it still poses serious problems. For starters, the cover-your-ass strategy is fundamentally reactive: Healey gets to talk about one of her pet issues, but the Democrats don’t get to talk about theirs. What’s more, every extra ounce of newsprint or minute of airtime devoted to illegal immigration reinforces the notion that it’s one of the top issues in the governor’s race. The issue, perhaps — ahead of jobs, education, and affordable housing.
In turn, the more people focus on illegal immigration — the more voters, that is, as opposed to illegal immigrants, who can’t actually vote — the more likely it is they’ll be filled with outrage. (Spend a few minutes listening to WRKO-AM — 680 on your AM dial — and you’ll know what this outrage sounds like. It isn’t pretty.) And if this is the mood come Election Day, the Democrats simply won’t be able to compete with Healey’s hard-line stance. Illegal immigration will put the lieutenant governor in the Corner Office, and Democrats will spend the next four years kicking themselves for following the script she wrote.
There’s an alternative, of course. Heading into this fall’s elections, the Democratic candidates for governor could embrace the pro-illegal-immigrant cause, taking every opportunity to tell voters that integrating “illegals” (or “undocumenteds,” if you prefer) is the best course for Massachusetts and the nation. Without question, it would be a politically risky move. But if it let the Democrats paint Healey as a cold-hearted, out-of-touch millionaire, it could work.