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Baker seeks ‘urgent assistance’ from federal government for influx of migrants

A Globe review indicates more than 11,000 have arrived in past year

Venezuelan migrants gathered at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal on Martha’s Vineyard in September.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker implored President Biden to provide “urgent assistance” to help resettle thousands of migrants who have streamed into Massachusetts in recent months, asking for increased housing and employment benefits, as well as funding for local nonprofits helping them.

The governor’s request, made Monday, comes at a time when the state’s homeless shelters are so overwhelmed by the influx of migrants — most entering the country at the US-Mexico border — that the Baker administration has resorted to placing approximately 100 families, many from Central America and Haiti, in hotels.

In an interview on GBH radio last week, Baker called the scale of immigration at the southern border a “crisis.” “The numbers are staggering,” he said, “and they are going to affect lots of states, including ours.”

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The situation in Massachusetts is complicated by the state’s right-to-shelter law, which legally obligates the Baker administration to house homeless families. “We are having a lot of folks land here and say, ‘I’m homeless,’ and we have to find answers for them not tomorrow . . . not next week, now,” he said.

Baker’s approach to the new wave of immigration stands in sharp contrast to that of other Republican governors, especially those from Southern states. In a high-profile political stunt, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida flew 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in September. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has bused thousands of migrants to Northern cities, often without coordinating with local officials.

In the closing months of his administration, Baker has, as ever, taken a more technocratic and less bombastic tack.

In an Oct. 31 letter addressed to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Baker wrote: “As long as the situation at the southern border remains unchanged, Massachusetts and many other states will struggle to cope with this substantial increase in immigrant families accessing shelter and other services.”

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The letter included the state’s first public accounting of recent migrant arrivals. From October 2021 through September 2022, “Massachusetts-based resettlement agencies served 4,334 individuals,” according to Baker. Of those, 2,000 were Afghan, 822 were Cuban or Haitian, and 548 were refugees from other countries.

But even those significant numbers represent a substantial undercount of the true number of arrivals, according to figures compiled by the Globe in recent weeks.

The director of one Mattapan nonprofit, for example, said her organization has received 6,000 newly arrived migrants since March. The vast majority of them are Haitian, according to the nonprofit, which suggests that the true number of Haitian arrivals exceeds the count in Baker’s letter by thousands.

And the director of a nonprofit in Chelsea said her group has helped more than 2,000 Latin American migrants who have reached Massachusetts this year. None of those arrivals are included in the Baker count, director Gladys Vega said.

Internal figures from another Massachusetts nonprofit, the International Institute of New England, show the group helped 4,191 people — including Afghans and Ukrainians — between October 2021 and September 2022. Most of the institute’s clients appear to be included in Baker’s count, according to its chief executive.

Based on those figures and others, it appears that no fewer than 11,000 migrants and refugees have reached the state in the past year. A spokesperson for the Baker administration did not dispute the Globe’s count.

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And the pace of arrivals has been accelerating. Geralde Gabeau of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan and Vega of La Colaborativa in Chelsea said the numbers this year far exceed those of last year. Since the summer, Gabeau’s group has been taking in new migrants at more than five times the rate that it did during the first half of last year.

A spokesperson for Baker said the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants, which provided the figures for Baker’s letter, “is only able to confirm numbers shared with them by the resettlement agencies.” The International Institute of New England is a resettlement agency; the Mattapan and Chelsea nonprofits are not.

In his letter, Baker implored the federal government to help the state resettle the new migrants, many of whom arrive with children. As part of his appeal, the governor placed the state’s problems in the context of an immigration crisis that is playing out nationally.

“I realize almost every state, especially those closest to the border, are struggling to keep up with serving new arrivals released from the southern border,” he wrote.

“Massachusetts is proud to welcome individuals and families seeking asylum and refuge and is dedicated to helping families live with dignity,” he added, “but additional federal support is required.”

He made several specific requests.

First, he asked that the Department of Homeland Security expedite approvals of work authorizations for the migrants, a process that currently can take six to 12 months, he wrote.

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“During these times, these groups are legally present in the United States and yet have no ability to support themselves, with obvious negative consequences both for the individuals and a receiving state,” he wrote.

Second, he asked the government to increase payments to the state’s nonprofit resettlement agencies, which connect eligible migrants with housing and legal services. The “current . . . service levels do not meet the needs of these new arrivals,” he wrote.

Finally, he asked the government to expand eligibility for federal benefits, including cash assistance and job placement programs, calling the current standards “arbitrary and unproductive.”

“Certain . . . populations are eligible for only a fraction of the benefits of refugees, and other populations are excluded from federal benefits entirely,” he wrote, even though these groups “present similar needs and place similar pressures on receiving states.”

Haitians, for example, are not eligible for benefits available to Afghans, he wrote, even though both groups are fleeing societal breakdown in their home countries.

A spokesperson for the DHS said the agency responds to letters such as Baker’s “directly.” The US Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Nonprofit leaders and local officials applauded the governor’s letter.

“Those of us involved in this work are grateful for his leadership on this,” said Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England. “He is saying that we need additional federal support, and we totally agree with that.”

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Baker’s letter comes at a time of increasing tension and finger-pointing between officials at various levels of government. Last week, leaders of Plymouth and Kingston criticized the Baker administration’s handling of the relocation of dozens of migrants families to their towns.

As in other cities — including New York, where Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency last month as shelters overflowed ― the wave of immigration has collided with the region’s acute housing shortage.

Vega, of the Chelsea nonprofit, said housing remains the greatest challenge when it comes to accommodating the influx of migrants.

“We don’t have enough housing for the people who are already here,” Vega said, “never mind for the new families that are arriving every week.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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