The immigration raid of a New Bedford leather manufacturer offered beleaguered [Massachusetts] Gov. Deval Patrick a much-needed chance to show leadership — and get the spotlight off a series of embarrassing political gaffes [like spending taxpayer money on various sorts of personal showiness]. Patrick, whose campaign for governor included a call to let illegal immigrants get drivers licenses, wasted no time criticizing the conduct of the raid that netted 361 factory workers.

After the raid, Patrick took federal immigration officials to task for initially barring state social service workers from interviewing detainees and for quickly flying many of those swept up in the raid out of Massachusetts, splitting families. “It is a humanitarian crisis and it is not over yet,” Patrick said Friday, the morning after traveling to New Bedford for an emotional meeting with relatives of the detainees. “Our focus is on the children and those other vulnerable people who were affected by this.”

There was both peril and promise in Patrick’s reaction to the raid. On the plus side for Patrick, it drew attention away from a spate of political fumbles and gave him a chance to look like a take-charge leader. But it also tossed him into the national spotlight on one of the most politically incendiary issues of the day. His initial handling of the situation won praise from some political observers. Patrick has walked a fine line between expressing concern for those directly affected by the raid, while also acknowledging that laws must be enforced, according to Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Patrick has said it had “taken more calls to Washington than it ought to have taken” to get access to the detainees by social workers. “He was very careful in not making a judgment about whether it was legitimate to attempt to enforce those laws as opposed to how it was done,” said Watanabe. “After a couple of very rough weeks, this reflected what at least some felt was the best promise of Patrick.”

Not everyone is convinced Patrick has been clear enough that much of the blame should go to those who were in the country illegally. As heartbreaking as the images of children separated from their parents might be, federal immigration officials aren’t the problem, according to Massachusetts House GOP leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading. “When you break the law, you not only put yourself at risk, but you put your family at risk,” he said. “Just because you have children doesn’t mean you should be held to a different standard.”

Illegal immigration isn’t a new issue for Patrick. During the campaign he said he favored letting illegal immigrants obtain driver’s licenses, saying it would be an effective way for the government to document the immigrants, but later backed away from that position. Shortly after taking his oath of office, Patrick scaled back an agreement ex-Gov. Mitt Romney had signed just weeks earlier with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have state police take on immigration enforcement duties.

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