It’s the local humanitarian crisis barely anyone is paying attention to: the wave of Haitian migrants who are arriving by the dozens each week to the Boston area.
It’s been nearly two months since the harrowing images of border agents on horseback trying to contain Black Haitian migrants were published to great national outrage. The visuals dominated the news cycle for a few days, as did the news of a massive camp, set up under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, made up of roughly 14,000 migrants, mostly Haitian, who were waiting to come into the United States.
What has transpired since the camp was dismantled has mostly gone under the radar. Thousands of those migrants were summarily expelled, but many more were allowed in — mostly family units or minors traveling on their own. Given that the Greater Boston area is home to the third-largest concentration of Haitian nationals in the country, it is no surprise that many of those new Haitian migrants made their way to Massachusetts.
“We have done 500 Haitian family intakes, which translates into 1,600 Haitian individuals, since the week after the events at Del Rio,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan. Gabeau has had to triple her organization’s staff to about 45 employees in order to properly handle the demand for services, which includes everything from finding clothes and housing for recent arrivals to connecting them with legal assistance.
What the local Haitian community is facing is an emergency. It’s why some lawmakers on Beacon Hill included $8 million for IFSI in the state Senate’s spending bill regarding the use of $3.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funds and surplus state money. It’s a good start to address the crisis, and legislators must ensure the aid reaches the Haitian community.
“We have this organization working 24/7, scrambling to raise private funds,” said Amy Grunder, director of state policy and legislative affairs at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. MIRA and other local legal-aid nonprofits have been pushing the Legislature to direct some of the federal and surplus funds the state has toward IFSI. “It doesn’t help anybody to not help them, to have people here without access to resources. They are here. What are we doing about it?”
Haiti finds itself in a deeply unstable state right now: There was political upheaval following the assassination of the Haitian president in July on top of a humanitarian crisis caused by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August. And that’s just what unfolded during the summer; the truth is that Haiti has been suffering far longer than that. Gang violence and food shortages are now routine. And that’s ultimately why hundreds of families have made their way here.
Here’s the important thing to remember: The recent wave of Haitian nationals entered the country with the permission of the federal government. “They did not sneak in through the border,” according to Deirdre Giblin, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. However, their legal status remains in limbo.
Giblin said these migrants were quickly processed at the border and told to show up at the local US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office once they reached their final destination inside the country. “It’s why the local ICE office in Burlington was so crowded in October,” Giblin said. All of a sudden, migrants were showing up; they wanted to move forward with their asylum cases or any other petition that would allow them to normalize their legal status here and, ultimately, obtain a work permit.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Gabeau and her team continue to perform miracles daily. She told me about the pregnant woman who had been homeless and sleeping under a bridge near Boston Medical Center. Thankfully, a passerby who knew about IFSI spotted her and alerted Gabeau’s team.
Winter is approaching, and dozens of families keep arriving at Gabeau’s door. These Haitian immigrants are in dire need of housing and food — it would mean a small investment on the part of the state to fund their resettlement and give them a foothold for a better future.