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‘We just don’t know’: A year into immigration wave, no one can say how many are coming

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

Since early last year, steady streams of migrants, many with children in tow, have turned up at Massachusetts emergency rooms, churches, and nonprofit offices seeking housing, food, and help with immigration paperwork.

But after a year of scrambling to help the new arrivals, state officials and nonprofit leaders are still unable to answer two key questions. How many migrants have arrived? And how many are expected to come?

“We just don’t know,” said Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England.

The results of the several counts that have been conducted have varied — and none has claimed to be definitive. Then-Governor Charlie Baker wrote in an October letter to the Biden administration that “Massachusetts-based resettlement agencies” had served more than 4,000 migrants in federal fiscal year 2022. But that count excluded thousands of migrants served by other types of nonprofits.

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A Globe review the same month, found that no fewer than 11,000 migrants had reached the state in the past year.

In Boston, the epicenter of the state’s migration influx, officials say they too have been unable to pinpoint a number of migrants coming to the city.

In a call with reporters Thursday, the city’s housing chief, Sheila Dillon, said at least 1,000 migrant families had arrived in Boston over the past year. But she acknowledged that figure was likely an undercount.

The lack of precision makes planning and budgeting difficult, Thielman said.

Last year, he said, the outgoing Baker administration sought the help of nonprofits to provide services to migrants in the state’s care. Several organizations, including Thielman’s, plan to submit proposals this month to help migrants access government benefits and fill out immigration paperwork, among other services, he said. But they don’t know how many migrants they should plan to serve — and the state hasn’t told them.

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“I applaud this initiative,” he said, adding that conducting a comprehensive and accurate count of migrants is a daunting task. “I’m just saying that because we don’t have the numbers, it’s really hard to plan.”

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services declined to comment.

The challenge is not unique to Massachusetts.

“This transcends cities and state borders,” said Michael Osaghae, a Boston City Hall spokesperson who works with the city’s immigration office.

Indeed, the problem seems to originate at the US southern border where many of the migrants who ultimately reach Massachusetts enter the country. There, thousands of migrants a day cross the Rio Grande without authorization and turn themselves in to federal authorities. Some make asylum claims and then live in the country while their cases proceed. Others are released “under their own recognizance,” in the federal government’s parlance, to fend for themselves while fighting deportation proceedings.

The federal government does not keep complete records of where the migrants go after they are released.

As they disperse across the country — usually by bus or plane — the burden of caring for them often falls on state and local governments.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency last year after an influx of migrants overwhelmed the city’s shelters.

In Massachusetts, the Baker administration had to resort to sheltering migrant families in hotels. In November, Baker asked the Legislature for $130 million for emergency migrant housing, but his proposed bill was not taken up before the legislative session ended. In December, Baker’s housing and economic development secretary, Mike Kennealy, said the government could run out of space to provide emergency shelter to homeless families, including migrants, by the end of March.

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As the state system buckles, local officials have sometimes picked up the slack.

Boston partners with nonprofits, such as NOAH and Family Aid, to provide short-term shelter before families can enter the state’s system or obtain longer-term housing from other nonprofits, said Dillon, the Boston housing chief.

Her office works with families as they arrive — sometimes after they have spent a night in a hospital emergency room, other times after finding that the state’s intake offices are closed for the weekend. Her attempts to quantify migration to Boston have run into the same challenges others have encountered: a plethora of points of entry to the state, and a lack of centralized record-keeping.

“I love precise numbers,” she said, “but this is the challenge of not having one system that is dedicated to this issue.”

On Thursday afternoon, Dillon and other City Hall officials met with senior officials from Governor Maura Healey’s administration to discuss the migration influx, according to two City Hall officials.

Recent changes to federal immigration policy could provide some relief. Since October, the Biden administration has created new programs designed to encourage legal immigration from politically unstable countries such as Venezuela and Cuba. At the same time it has implemented strict border policies meant to deter unauthorized crossings. Federal statistics indicate the plan may be working, with unauthorized crossings by targeted nationalities sharply dropping.

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How these changes may affect Massachusetts in the coming months remains an open question. “Nobody has a good handle on that,” Thielman said.


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