Amid a growing influx of migrants arriving in Massachusetts, Governor Maura Healey is tapping three fierce defenders of immigrant rights to bolster the state’s efforts to support new arrivals and the immigrant community at large.
She’s plucked the new hires from the front lines of dealing with America’s broken immigration system — two heavily involved in nonprofit work and one with more than two decades of experience defending immigrants in court. The new appointees — Cristina Aguilera Sandoval, Ronnie Millar, and Susan Church — bring on-the-ground expertise and potential to improve the state’s coordination of nonprofits and resettlement agencies that serve immigrants in Massachusetts, which advocates say has hampered their efforts.
Aguilera Sandoval will take the lead of the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants, or ORI, while Millar and Church serve in brand-new titles created to help tackle the challenging puzzle of securing resources and shelter for immigrants during the state’s housing crisis.
The office will also soon implement a law passed last year, which allows people without legal immigration status to obtain drivers’ licenses beginning July 1.
“Cristina, Ronnie, and Susan are uniquely qualified to lead an office that celebrates the contributions of immigrants and refugees and connects them with the resources and services they need to thrive here,” Healey said in a statement.
Aguilera Sandoval, who is currently executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative, will become executive director of ORI, reporting to Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh. Millar, former executive director of Boston’s Rian Immigrant Center, has already started as the office’s new director of strategic initiatives; Church, a prominent immigration attorney most recently known for her work with immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard last fall, also started her new role as chief operating officer.
The announcement comes as a steady stream of migrants, many with children, have turned up at emergency rooms, churches, and nonprofit offices seeking housing, food, and help with immigration paperwork.
Healey took office as the state entered the second calendar year of an extraordinary wave of immigration to the United States, driven by instability and harsh economic conditions in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, and Ukraine.
In Massachusetts, the arrival of thousands of migrant families and the rise in homelessness have swamped the state’s emergency shelter system, forcing the Healey administration to place hundreds of families in hotels. As of Tuesday, more than 900 families were housed in hotels, according to state figures.
And while the Healey administration has taken steps to chip away at some of the need, advocates hope the new hires signal a greater focus on how to come up with more solutions.
For example, the state doesn’t do a thorough job of keeping track of exactly how many migrants are coming here, something advocates agree is a major problem.
Dr. Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan, said during the Baker administration, the state was publishing numbers “that made no sense whatsoever to us.”
At the time, Gabeau and other leaders called for an overhaul of the Baker administration’s immigrants office, and said they wanted a greater say in the state’s decision-making on immigration.
The new hires, she said, inspire confidence because they come from positions that already regularly communicate with advocacy groups. She said the three appointees are “the right combination” to make sure the state’s immigrant community is served.
“If they know that every day we are seeing over 100 new people, they understand what they need to provide,” said Gabeau, who reported 127 new arrivals at her office on Monday alone. “If they think we are only seeing five or 10 people . . . it’s not going to help us.”
Jeff Thielman, CEO of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants in Greater Boston, agreed that the lack of centralized coordination for the state’s immigration response has proven a major challenge.
“Sometimes, we are working without all the facts,” he said. “I am hopeful the new team can do that. A big cry for us is a need for coordination.”
Monique Tú Nguyen, the executive director of the Office for Immigrant Advancement in Boston, said choosing leaders with nonprofit backgrounds is “a great move,” and that the appointees will use their skills to better coordinate across the government, business, and nonprofit sector to provide support for the immigrant community.
Nguyen, who comes from a nonprofit background, said she felt immigrants’ needs “wasn’t a huge priority” for the past administration, but has felt a change since Healey took office.
“Government has a stereotype of being archaic or unwilling to change,” she said. “Governor Healey is willing to take on new ideas.”
Aguilera Sandoval, who was raised in Venezuela, began her career in the US organizing immigrant and refugee workers in several states before joining the MIRA Coalition in Massachusetts. From there, she went on to serve in numerous leadership roles in Boston-area immigrants’ rights organizations, and currently serves on Healey’s Latino Empowerment advisory council. She most recently served as executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative, which formed in April 2020 to help immigrants access financial relief and health care in response to pandemic-related job losses and illness.
Millar, who emigrated from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1993, worked as an engineer before starting work in human services in 2000. He cofounded the Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative before going on to lead the Rian Immigrant Center, which provides legal and educational resources to immigrants.
Church is a veteran immigration attorney who has advocated for immigrants facing deportation and those seeking benefits in the US. She successfully sued the Trump administration in 2017 over his controversial “travel ban” and then again in 2018 in a case that reunited a family separated by the administration’s family separation policy. Church is well known for her pro bono work, including work with the immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 in an apparent political stunt by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Aguilera Sandoval, who will receive a base salary of $160,000 per year, starts June 16, according to Healey’s office. Millar and Church, who have already started in their roles, will each earn $149,277.
Mary Truong, the outgoing executive director of ORI, will continue working with the agency as director of its Citizenship for New Americans Program, which helps immigrants through the nationalization process.
Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.