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RI, Mass. Dems divided over decriminalizing illegal immigration


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III is the only local House Democrat who supports decriminalizing illegal immigration, as Rhode Island’s entire congressional delegation opposes the idea, according to a WPRI 12 survey of their offices.

Amid the ongoing furor over the Trump administration’s border policies, a growing number of Democrats — including some presidential hopefuls — have said Congress should repeal section 1325 of the federal code so that entering the country illegally is no longer a criminal offense. Instead it would a civil violation.

Kennedy, an outspoken opponent of the administration on immigration who recently visited a migrant detention center at the Texas border, argues the change makes sense.

“Section 1325 has helped the Trump administration implement the mass criminalization and dehumanization of those seeking safe harbor on our shores,” Kennedy said in a statement.

“Repealing this statute would preserve our ability to deport those who pose a true threat, protect those legally pursuing asylum, and move us closer to an immigration system that is just, fair and humane,” he said.

Massachusetts’ two U.S. senators — Democrats Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for president, and Ed Markey, up for re-election in 2020 — share the same view as Kennedy.

It’s a different story in Rhode Island, where all four Democrats in the congressional delegation say they oppose repealing section 1325.

“Section 1325 is not the cause of Trump’s failed immigration policy and repealing it would not fix our broken immigration system,” Chip Unruh, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, said in an email.

“The only way to do that is through serious, comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform like the kind Senator Reed worked on with Senator McCain that passed the Senate,” he continued. “Senator Reed believes in smart, strong borders, humane treatment of all people, and treating people fairly under the rule of law.”

Rhode Island’s other senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, echoed Reed.

“Section 1325 long predates the humanitarian disaster at the border created by President Trump’s family separation and zero tolerance policies,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “For those who cross into the country seeking safety and a chance to contribute their talents to our economy, we need a system that can quickly and humanely process individual cases.”

Congressman David Cicilline, a progressive and member of House Democratic leadership who usually agrees with Kennedy, declined to join him in calling for decriminalizing crossing the border illegally.

“The congressman believes we need to fix our broken immigration system and strengthen security along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Cicilline spokesperson Rich Luchette. “Folks applying for asylum should be treated with dignity and have their cases heard as soon as possible. He does not support repealing 1325.”

Stuart Malec, a spokesperson for Congressman Jim Langevin, confirmed he also opposes repeal of section 1325 but did not elaborate.

One local representative’s position on the issue remained a mystery as of Tuesday morning: Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating, a Democrat who represents Fall River, New Bedford and Cape Cod.

Keating’s office had not responded to four messages since July 5 asking where the congressman stands. On Tuesday night, however, he issued a statement opposing full repeal.

“While I don’t agree with repealing section 1325 altogether, it should be revised so it’s not legally used to justify family separation and the other horrendous immigration policies of the administration,” Keating said.

“More importantly, this needs to be a part of a larger conversation on the reform of our entire immigration system, which is broken,” he said.

Ted Nesi ( is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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