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‘The system is strained’: Greater Boston’s support networks struggle to keep up as thousands of migrants surge into the area

Haitian migrant Nedjie Sylla kissed her baby sister, Kaisa Cine, as she sat next to her mother, Marie Lucienie Rose, and her sister Sophora Deborah Cine (far left) in their temporary apartment in Mattapan.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew two planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month, the stunt commanded national headlines and prompted an outpouring of support from good Samaritans and state agencies.

But the Vineyard migrants’ numbers — fewer than 50 — represented a mere drop in the bucket when compared to a surge of thousands of migrants who have reached the Boston area in recent months. Their arrival is overwhelming the resources of local aid groups and prompting calls for more resources to handle the influx.

“The system is strained,” said Jeff Thielman, CEO of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants in Greater Boston.

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The new migrants, by and large, have come to the state after crossing the border in Texas and then bouncing between detention centers, shelters run by nonprofits, or friends’ living rooms throughout the country. They have left their homes in Haiti, Central America, and, increasingly, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, driven out by violence, political instability, and a lack of work.

They turn up at Logan Airport, South Station, emergency rooms, the front stoops of churches, and the packed waiting rooms of nonprofits looking for a meal, a place to sleep, and help with immigration paperwork.

Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, which helps Latin American migrants settle in Chelsea, said that in the past three months a “wave” of South American migrants has forced her organization to make difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources.

“How do I give priority to this new group when I already have 800 people waiting for affordable housing?” Vega said.

While state and local officials do not have definitive numbers, reports from some aid groups are startling. One Mattapan nonprofit, the Immigrant Family Services Institute, which serves mostly Haitians, performed approximately 5,200 intakes from April through September. That figure represents a more than sixfold increase compared to the first half of last year.

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Monique Tú Nguyen, Boston’s director of immigrant advancement, said that migration to the city — including the arrival of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees — has increased during the past two years, driven in part by economic disruption caused by the pandemic. A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said the city is “closely monitoring the recent arrival of migrants” and working with the state and federal governments, as well as nonprofits, “to provide resources and coordination so families get the care and support they need.”

The surge of migrants is occurring as immigration crises are flaring up around the country.

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency last Friday after the city’s shelters were overwhelmed by the arrival of at least 17,000 migrants since spring (bringing the city’s total shelter population to more than 61,000).

The migrants entered the country under a variety of circumstances. Some walked across the border and are undocumented. Others are in various states of immigration limbo, as they pursue asylum claims or try to avoid deportation in court. Some entered the country with visas.

In Texas, political leaders, including the Democratic mayor of El Paso and the Republican governor, have bused migrants north by the thousands. DeSantis flew 48 mostly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas in an attempt, he said, to call attention to the undue burden unauthorized migration places on border states.

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Federal government data show massive and growing numbers of encounters between US officers and migrants at the southern border. From January through August this year, there were more than 2 million encounters, according to US Customs and Border Protection. That’s up from fewer than a million encounters during the same period in 2019.

The surge of migrants reaching Boston, New York, and other Northern cities has, in a sense, given Republican governors in border states exactly what they wanted. Now, it’s the cities of pro-immigration liberals confronting the challenges of ceaseless migration, albeit on a smaller scale.

In an interview on WBUR last month, Wu said the influx of migrants was caused, in part, by Boston’s reputation for providing high-quality services. “The more services we provide,” she said, “the more demand there is.”

Those comments match the stories from migrants themselves.

After crossing the border in Texas, Chancelaine Marius, her husband, Lenet Smith, and their two young children took a bus to Orlando. where they stayed with friends from Haiti, their home country. But they found few services available there. So when a friend in Boston told them about the Immigrant Family Services Institute, they headed north.

Now the family shares a room in a crowded Mattapan triple-decker the institute uses as a temporary shelter. The organization is also helping them get their immigration papers in order so they can work.

In Haiti, Smith said, he had worked for a building materials company and Marius said she had been unable to find a job. They also said they felt endangered by gang violence.

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“We want a better life and safety,” Marius said Thursday through an interpreter.

Thielman, of the International Institute of New England, said his organization served approximately 4,200 migrants in Greater Boston in the past year, up 25 percent from the year before. The organization, Thielman said, is struggling to locate enough housing and hire enough qualified employees to handle the increased caseload. Other front-line groups reported similar challenges. “We’re all in the same battle every day,” he said.

The effects of the surge have spilled over to other institutions, as well. Hospitals have reported migrants turning up at emergency rooms looking for health care and a place to sleep. A Boston Children’s Hospital spokesperson said the state needs more shelters for homeless families, including migrants.

“We believe emergency departments are inappropriate for short-term sheltering and may sometimes challenge our ability to provide critical emergency services,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Church leaders have called nonprofits after migrant families arrive at their door. Uber drivers and airport employees know the phone numbers and addresses of aid groups.

“A lot of the Uber drivers are Haitian,” said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute. “They bring families here without charging a fee.”

Governor Charlie Baker recently submitted a budget request for $20 million to fund immigrant assistance programs, “including increasing temporary housing resources,” a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said.

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The state allocated $30 million for resettlement agencies, including $8 million for the Mattapan nonprofit, for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

Vega, of La Colaborativa, said families she serves have resorted to desperate measures to find housing. One family, she said, is paying $600 a month for a hallway. Others are dividing bedrooms with a curtain, with one family living on each side, she said.

“What I need the most is housing and money for housing,” Vega said.

Meanwhile, new migrants keep showing up.

On Wednesday night, Vega said, La Colaborativa received a call from a Venezuelan family of three. They had just landed at Logan Airport and had nowhere to go. Vega booked a hotel room in Chelsea and ordered them meals at a local restaurant. Then she sent her chief operating officer to pick the family up.

But there was a mix-up. Another Venezuelan family had put them in a taxi and sent them to Broadway in Revere, instead of Chelsea.

“I don’t know where they are now,” Vega said. It was just the latest heartbreak, she said, in a summer and fall marked by struggle.

She went to bed Wednesday night, she said, imagining the family wandering the street alone.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed research.



Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.