Curtatone, Hodgson hold largely cordial sanctuary city debate

Mayor sees furor over immigration as part of white nationalism push

SOMERVILLE MAYOR JOSEPH CURTATONE and Bristol Country Sheriff Thomas Hodgson on Thursday dropped their sound-bite attacks on one another and for the most part engaged in a substantive debate about sanctuary status and the nation’s immigration policies.

Hodgson, a Republican, was outnumbered but held his ground during a panel discussion hosted by the UMass School of Law in Dartmouth. In addition to Curtatone, a Democrat, the panel included Emily Norton, a Newton city councilor and Massachusetts director of the Sierra Club, and Sarang Sekhavat, the federal policy director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Last week Curtatone and Hodgson sniped at each other in a long-distance war of  words. Hodgson, in testimony before Congress, called for the arrest of officials who support sanctuary cities. Curtatone responded on Facebook with a post describing Hodgson as “a jack-booted thug who wants to jail your opponents for made-up offenses.”

Face to face on Thursday, the two officials didn’t engage in personal attacks but stood by their positions.

Hodgson said he would not apologize for calling for the arrest of officials who support sanctuary cities. He said it is a felony to refuse to cooperate with the directives of federal officials. He said he took an oath to enforce all of the laws of the country, not just some of them.

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

Curtatone said he was proud Somerville has been a sanctuary city since 1987. He said the city’s police force works with federal agencies all the time, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, But the mayor said public safety is not enhanced by using a person’s immigration status against them, except in cases where the individual is alleged to be involved in violent crimes.

The mayor said the context of the sanctuary city debate is important, He said the movement was led originally by the Catholic Church and police officers. The church opposed targeting people who were running away from horrific conditions in their home countries, while police officials feared they would have better luck fighting crime in their cities with help from immigrants.

During the current debate, Curtatone said, it is important to listen to all viewpoints. “But when a lie is a lie you need to call it out,” he said. He ticked off rumors of mass deportations, a Muslim ban, a money-wasting wall along the nation’s southern border, and attacks on Muslims, immigrants, the LGBQT community, and others. “You have to ask yourself when policy is being driven not by facts, or logic, or reason, what is it?” he asked. “In context, you see it’s a twisted ideology and it looks a whole lot like white nationalism.”

Hodgson blamed Washington for failing to address illegal immigration, and repeatedly said that failure puts the country at risk of terrorist attack. He raised the specter of the 9/11 terrorist attack and the Boston Marathon bombings. Norton asked him why he was mentioning the Marathon bombings, given that the Tsarnaev brothers were in this country legally. Hodgson said the failure to detect the political leanings of the two brothers, even though they were on the radar of law enforcement, underscores the greater difficulty of keeping tabs on people who police officials don’t even know are here.

“We have terrorists around here, in our own county, trust me,” said Hodgson. “We have them all over this state.”

Hodgson said he met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week and was told the federal government’s priority is deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records. Asked by an audience member why federal officials took five individuals into custody last week who had visited a federal immigration office in Lawrence to seek legal status, he said he didn’t know the details of the case. But the sheriff said he suspected federal officials had good reasons for taking the individuals into custody.

The panelists engaged in a lengthy discussion of  the importance of immigrants to the nation’s economy and how the country relies on immigrants to perform jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Hodgson said he would be happy to provide inmates at his jail to help bring in crops or perform other tasks that immigrants currently perform.

The sheriff has come under fire for offering his inmates to help build a wall between the US and Mexico, an arrangement that some have called slave labor. “You want to talk about slave labor?” he asked. He said the way US employers use immigrants and pay them almost nothing is the real slave labor. “We’re helping these people, really?”

Hodgson labeled people who enter the United States without going through the immigration process “illegal  immigrants,” but the other panelists, particularly Norton, insisted they be called “undocumented immigrants.”

“To call them illegals and treat them like garbage, it’s just not right,” Norton said. “Life is not black and white. This issue is not black and white,” she said, adding that most “undocumented immigrants” in this country are fleeing violence in their home countries caused by the drug trade, which in turn is fueled by drug consumption in the United States.

Hodgson refused to budge. “It’s a crime — no ifs, ands, or buts about it — to come across the border without going through our immigration process. That’s a fact. …It’s not an insult to say to a person you’re here illegally. You can say undocumented, but the truth is they’re here illegally because they violated the law,” he said. “I could say a bank robber is an undocumented withdrawer, but the reality is the person committed a crime and it’s illegal.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Curtatone said even undocumented immigrants have rights under US law. “If you can’t see that, maybe you should check yourself in here,” the mayor said, referring to the law school.

After someone in the audience shouted that Curtatone was a bully, the mayor said: “No sir, I’m not a bully. I’m a fighter.”