Sparks Fly When Somerville Mayor, Sheriff Talk Immigration

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DARTMOUTH, Mass. — The mayor of the commonwealth’s original sanctuary city and the county sheriff who has said elected officials that harbor illegal immigrants should be arrested took their beef to the South Coast, sparring over immigration at a University of Massachusetts School of Law forum Thursday.

“We’ve heard it a lot — sanctuary cities are safer than other cities — well, if I was Mohamed Atta or one of the Tsarnaev brothers, I’d probably be seeking out a sanctuary city,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said at the beginning of the 90-minute forum, billed as a “battle of ideas.” “I wouldn’t be targeting that city, because that’s my cover.”

The term “sanctuary city,” used unofficially to describe American municipalities where police departments decline to assist the federal government in immigration enforcement, remained the focus of the discussion, which in addition to Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone also featured Newton City Councilor Emily Norton and Sarang Sekhavat, an attorney with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

The contest resembled  a three-on-one joust, with Hodgson repeatedly taking on Curtatone, Norton, and Sekhavat, especially with regard to the rule of law. Thursday’s event, scheduled back in September, took on added significance within the last few weeks after Curtatone took to social media to brand Hodgson as a “sort-of jack-booted thug” after the sheriff suggested that mayors and other elected officials who openly flout immigration laws should be subject to arrest for harboring illegal immigrants.

Hodgson took aim at a key argument sanctuary city supporters have made — that without the policy illegal immigrants would be less inclined to work with police to report crimes.

“The fact is I took an oath and I made a promise to the people of this county and this country to uphold the laws of the constitution, the state constitution, and my community,” Hodgson said at one point. “And nowhere did it say that I had the right to pick and choose which ones of those laws I need to enforce.

“If you don’t like the law, then go to Washington and lobby.”

Curtatone responded by dismissing the claim that sanctuary cities “harbor violent people.”

“That’s false, that’s a lie,” he said. “If someone is a violent person and has a criminal warrant we work with them [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to deport that person, you don’t get a free pass in Somerville.”  

He noted that his city’s crime rate has plunged by nearly 53 percent since 1987 and added that the policy was originally pushed by members of the Catholic Church and local police.

Norton, who helped spearhead Newton’s passage of a “Welcoming City” ordinance in February, also noted that illegal immigrants in her city are not authorized to commit violent crimes. Norton later received a round of applause from the audience for denouncing the term “illegal immigrants.”

“I refer to these individuals as undocumented immigrants, because they are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” she added.

Hodgson, however, did not back down. He slammed Washington lawmakers for failing to adequately address immigration and claimed that their failure has raised the potential for additional 9/11-style terror attacks. He later criticized California lawmakers for passing legislation making the Golden State a “sanctuary state,” pointing to a recent University of California-Berkeley poll showing that 74 percent of residents oppose allowing local law enforcement to ignore federal detainer requests.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers are currently considering identical legislation.

“These days of elected officials deciding for themselves what’s better for the people that elected them, even when the numbers are so overwhelmingly against their proposals, tells me it’s not really about true representation,” Hodgson said. “It’s about philosophical views of elected officials who have other motivations behind why they want this done.”

Hodgson also noted that the 9/11 ringleader Atta and the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, were living in the United States legally at the time.

“If we can’t protect ourselves when we have a system that brings them in on a legal status, then why in God’s name would we want to invite all kinds of people into the country this way?” Hodgson said.

The discussion turned icy at one point when Curtatone reminded Hodgson he took the same oath to uphold the law and claimed that immigrants would prefer to legally enter the United States.

“I think we’re talking about illegal immigrants here, right, not immigrants?” Hodgson interjected.

“Guess what? You and I took the same oath to protect the undocumented immigrants as well,” Curtatone shot back. “Those laws, the constitutional laws, apply to them as well, and if you can’t see that, then maybe you should take a class in constitutional law.”

The back-and-forth prompted one man in the audience to shout, “Curtatone, you’re a bully.”

“No sir, I’m not a bully,” Curtatone responded. “I’m a fighter for what is right and what is just.”

Following the discussion, Hodgson again addressed his earlier statements regarding mayors offering illegal immigrants refuge in their cities.

“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re elected by the people to uphold the law and enforce those laws, it’s not your place, and nobody in America thinks it’s OK for you to decide for yourself which part you’re going to like and not like and enforce and not enforce,” he told reporters.