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Urging sympathy, former Governor Mike Dukakis tells CAI “there have to be some limits” on resettling refugees

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Northeastern University
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Former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis

Thirty-six years ago this week, Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis signed an executive order establishing the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Today it operates as the Office for Refugees and Immigrants, and works with placement agencies and faith-based organizations to assist refugees with housing, jobs, medical help, and English training as they transition to the U.S.

Last year, the office assisted more than 700 refugees from Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. The majority of its $17 million budget is funded by the federal government, with 13 percent ($2.2 million) coming from Massachusetts.

More than 50,000 Afghans evacuated their country following the U.S. troop withdrawal in August, and await processing on military bases. Some families are headed to Massachusetts this month.

The U.S. has admitted about 11,000 refugees this year, not including Afghan evacuees. President Biden has pledged to raise the annual admissions cap to 125,000 refugees.

Dukakis served three terms as governor, from 1975 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1991. During that time First Lady Kitty Dukakis worked for the release and resettlement of Cambodian and Thai refugees.

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Northeastern University
Kitty and Mike Dukakis

The 1988 presidential candidate and retired Northeastern University professor spoke to CAI’s Patrick Flanary on Morning Edition about establishing the Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement in 1985.

Patrick Flanary: What inspired that decision, and how was it received by the Legislature at the time?

Mike Dukakis: I think it was received very warmly and very well. And anybody who’s a recent product of immigration, as I am, I think is almost naturally going to be concerned, sympathetic. I think we can handle the Afghan situation. It’s what’s happening south of the border that’s very concerning, and I don’t have any easy answers to how you deal with it. If your parents came over here as immigrants, as mine did, I think it’s a natural feeling that you’ve got to be supportive, and want to be supportive.

PF: How do you characterize the president’s strategy of withdrawing ground troops from Afghanistan?

MD: It should have happened about 18 years ago. I mean, the whole Afghan thing was just a serious mistake. And the notion that we could somehow just keep another 2,000 or 3,000 troops in there and stabilize the situation I think is just nonsense. The Afghan government collapsed. What happens now? I can’t begin to tell you. But the whole thing is pretty sad.

PF: Is it our responsibility in Massachusetts, and from the federal perspective, to welcome refugees, and to what extent? And what’s the limit?

MD: That’s a very good question. Trump was terrible on this stuff, and in my opinion, ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s the grandson of immigrants. You’d never know it. My father came over here, he was 15 years of age, from a predominantly Greek town west of Turkey. He didn’t have a nickel in his pocket, couldn’t speak the language, and 12 years later graduated from Harvard Medical School, in 1924. How he did it, I have no idea. It seems almost impossible. My mother was the first Greek immigrant girl who ever went away to college unescorted in the history of the United States. It was unheard of at the time. I think the United States does have an important role to play. There have to be some limits, and we’ve got to decide what they are, and then proceed to implement them as best we can and as sympathetically as we can.

PF: President Biden suggested setting the limit at 125,000 refugees for next year. Is the number too high, or is it fair?

MD: Look, for a country that has 330 million people, I think 125,000 people is certainly reasonable and something we ought to be able to do. But we can’t suddenly accept everybody that wants to come in here. There’s got to be some limits, and I think Biden’s picked a reasonably decent number to do so.

PF: I’m curious how the state response to the pandemic is going, in your view. Is Governor Baker’s October 17 vaccine mandate for public workers overreach, or is it too late?

MD: I think on the whole we’re doing the right thing. Frankly, I do not understand this anti-vaccination reaction. I don’t get it. I mean, you can’t go to kindergarten without getting about 30 shots in this state.

PF: I take it you’ve had your booster shot?

MD: Not yet. [Kitty and I] got the Moderna [vaccine], so the booster is not yet ready. But we’re scheduled to see our primary doc in about a month. We’ll get it as soon as we can.

PF: What’s got your attention right now in Massachusetts politics? Is it the mayoral race? Is it the Rachael Rollins saga that’s playing out and dividing Republicans and Democrats?

MD: The Rachael Rollins thing is very interesting. Massachusetts has the lowest homicide rate in America. And it’s all about community policing, which works. Homicides are down nearly 20 percent in Massachusetts while they’re up all over the country.

PF: So you’re saying there are fewer homicides because community policing is effective?

MD: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s not just community policing, although I think that’s a major element. And gun laws are playing a major role, and I hope we’re not going to weaken them. Needless to say, I’m a strong supporter and proponent of tough gun laws.

PF: Have you ever owned a gun?

MD: No. On the other hand, I was an expert rifleman in the military. But I’m a very strong proponent of tough gun laws.

PF: What inspired you to retire last year, and are you happily retired?

MD: I turned 87. And I taught full-time, three-quarters out of four, at Northeastern. And then we’d go out to the West Coast to UCLA, and I’d teach out there during my off-quarter. I completed the quarter, and then suddenly came down with pneumonia. Went to the hospital, was treated. And the day before we were supposed to come back to Boston, I started acting funny, apparently. It turned out I had two brain abscesses, so I was operated on. After all of that, I kind of decided maybe it was time to step down from active teaching. But I’m gonna be 88 in a month. I feel good.

PF: Any birthday plans?

MD: Not this time around. I think we’ll take it kind of easy.