A flood of homeless migrants is pushing the state’s shelter system to its limit as Massachusetts officials plead for federal immigration reform.
Earlier this month, migrant families began arriving at hotels in New Bedford’s suburbs, where the state is leasing rooms as overflow shelter space. Eight families are at the Seaport Inn in Fairhaven and 10 are in a hotel in Dartmouth.
They’re among the 7,000 homeless families in Massachusetts emergency shelters. Many are seeking asylum from dangerous conditions in Haiti and Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. They depend on the state for food and shelter because federal immigration law prevents them from legally working for months after they arrive in the U.S.
Gov. Maura Healey has repeatedly asked the Biden administration to streamline the work authorization process so the migrants can support themselves. The state’s congressional delegation has made similar requests. But federal policy hasn’t caught up to their demands.
Healey expects the state’s shelter system to reach its capacity of 7,500 families by the end of this month, she announced last week. At that point, she says, the state won’t have the resources to guarantee shelter for every family, despite a 1983 right-to-shelter law that requires the state to shelter all homeless families with children and pregnant women.
What’s happening in Greater New Bedford
Service providers have begun to help the sheltered migrants in Fairhaven and Dartmouth. They include Haitian families and Spanish speakers from Latin America, service providers said, but some have been living in the U.S. for years.
“It’s a whirlwind at the moment,” said Pam Kuechler, executive director of People Acting in Community Endeavors, one of the organizations providing services to the migrants.
National Guard troops are staffing the Dartmouth and Fairhaven hotels to provide for the migrants’ day-to-day needs, including meals, access to medical care, and diapers and baby cribs. Healey deployed the National Guard to help at hotel shelters as demand there outpaced what local service providers could supply.
Staff from PACE are providing additional food at the hotels and helping migrants sign up for health insurance, Kuechler said.
The Immigrants’ Assistance Center, based in New Bedford, has offered to help the migrants with their immigration cases and is talking with the National Guard about how to do so, said Helena DaSilva Hughes, the center’s president. The center hopes to help migrants with immigration court dates in other states to move their cases to Boston. Migrants who miss a court date risk deportation.
Fairhaven officials are working to enroll the newly arrived children in school, said Fairhaven Town Administrator Angie Lopes Ellison. She declined to say how many children there were for safety reasons. Dartmouth Town Administrator Shawn McInnes referred questions about the migrants to state housing officials. The state is providing school districts with $104 per day in emergency aid for each new student’s enrollment and transportation costs, a state spokesperson said.
What it will take to get migrants out of shelters
Healey announced last week that her administration was stepping up efforts to transition families out of shelters. Those efforts include expanding re-housing and rental assistance programs for homeless families, as well as two new job training programs.
One program will allow businesses to provide job training to sheltered migrants who are still waiting for work authorization. The other new program connects businesses in need of workers with shelter residents who are ready and eligible to work.
How you can help
Service providers are accepting donations of:
- Clothing and shoes, especially winter coats and boots
- Car seats
Items can be dropped off at the Fairhaven Fire Department at 146 Washington St., Fairhaven.
Find more information on how to help families in crisis here.
DaSilva Hughes of the Immigrants Assistance Center was doubtful that the new programs would make much of a difference, since they don’t address the underlying issue: the wait for work permits.
“We can put people through trainings, but if they don’t have the proper documents to get a job, employers are not going to hire you,” she said.
Under federal law, migrants who file a claim for asylum in the U.S. aren’t eligible to apply for work permits until five months later. After that, application processing adds even more delays. In the meantime, the migrants depend on the state for food and shelter.
The bureaucratic hurdles are frustrating to DaSilva Hughes, who said the migrants want to work.
“If you speed up the working permits, they’ll be able to get a job and get out of the shelter,” she said.
Since the federal government controls immigration policy, Massachusetts officials are pressuring the Biden administration for reform.
Healey sent a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last month after a meeting with him. She asked for migrants to immediately receive provisional work authorizations when they apply for permits, rather than wait months for their applications to process. She also suggested logistical improvements to cut down on application processing times.
Since then, Healey has met with the White House chief of staff and welcomed a Homeland Security consultant team that visited shelters in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts congressional delegation sent Mayorkas a letter in July asking for similar changes. They met with Mayorkas last week to discuss work authorizations and other requests.
U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, who represents the South Coast, South Shore, Cape, and Islands, told The Light in a statement that he shares the frustrations of other state and local leaders.
“I strongly believe that those entering the U.S. should do so in a legal manner,” Keating said, “which is why it is so necessary to reform our country’s immigration system, so those seeking to provide a better life for their families and contribute to our country can come to the U.S. in a way that is both legal and efficient.”
Healey and Keating say they also support President Joe Biden’s recent request of $1.4 billion for migrant shelter services. The money “is urgently needed for states like Massachusetts that are experiencing historic surges in migrant arrivals,” Healey said in a statement.
But Congress hasn’t passed the funding. Until Wednesday, the House of Representatives had been stalled for weeks without a speaker.
Healey has also asked the Massachusetts Legislature to pass $250 million in additional state funding for shelters.
MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, is seeking approval from the federal government to pay for up to six months of temporary housing for people on its health plans who are in the state shelter system. Many of the migrants in shelters have legal status that makes them eligible for MassHealth, and this would allow the state to use federal Medicaid funds for their housing.
DaSilva Hughes fears what will happen when the shelter system reaches capacity. She said she has never seen this many migrants in need. She said she hopes Healey’s announcement will deter more migrants from coming to the state.
“I hope the message is loud and clear: Yes, we have a right to shelter, but where are we going to put them?” she said.
State Rep. Chris Markey, who represents Dartmouth, said he thinks the Healey administration is doing its best. It’s important to welcome migrants who come seeking a better life, but the situation has become unsustainable, he said.
“We can’t become the place where everyone comes,” he said. “It’s not affordable. It’s not realistic.”
Markey said it might be time to reevaluate the state’s right-to-shelter law. He reasoned that it’s better to give quality assistance to some than partial assistance to all.
State Rep. Bill Straus, who represents Fairhaven, and state Sen. Mark Montigny did not comment in response to requests from the Light.
Recent hate group activity in New Bedford has made service providers nervous about the migrants’ safety. But Lopes Ellison, the Fairhaven town administrator, said that the community has been overwhelmingly supportive and donations have been pouring in.
“I’m speechless at the level of volunteerism and humanitarian efforts that have come out of this process in helping the town,” she said.
Email Grace Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org