fb-pixelThe influx of migrants is a crisis. So far, Gov. Healey has not declared it an emergency, as leaders elsewhere have. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

The influx of migrants is a crisis. So far, Gov. Healey has not declared it an emergency, as leaders elsewhere have.

People waited for help at the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Mattapan.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The big influx of migrants in recent months prompted New York to call a state of emergency and Florida to activate additional National Guard members to help cope with the surge. New York City, Chicago, El Paso, and Washington, D.C., made their own emergency declarations.

Massachusetts, too, finds itself overwhelmed with migrant and homeless families, which have maxed out the available network of shelters, but state and local officials here are not yet ringing that particular alarm bell.

Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state, meaning the government is obligated to provide care for some homeless families, an obligation that only increases pressure on state and local officials as migrants arrive here in growing numbers. So does the state’s housing crunch, which makes it all the more difficult — and expensive — to shelter families in need.

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Making an emergency declaration would give Governor Maura Healey “great latitude” to loosen regulations and remove layers of bureaucracy to more quickly and easily secure medical supplies, hotel rooms, and other necessary provisions, said Stephen J. McGrail, former director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA.

Healey and her aides said they are coordinating a response to the crisis, while leaving the door open to an emergency declaration.

“I am going to do whatever I can to maximize resources and funding and support from the federal government as we continue to work with communities and nonprofits around the state,” the governor said Monday.

Her spokesperson Karissa Hand added that the administration is “evaluating our options.”

The new arrivals to Massachusetts — many of whom are fleeing political strife, street violence, and economic collapse — are turning up at Logan Airport, South Station, hospitals, and community intake centers at all hours. As of Thursday, there were 1,064 homeless families placed in hotel shelters alone. When Healey took office in January, there were 388.

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It’s difficult to quantify the extent of the influx of migrants in Massachusetts, as migrants are not counted separately from others seeking shelter. But the sheer number of arrivals has exhausted available shelter space, with officials and advocates resorting to empty dormitories and hotel rooms to fill the ever-growing need.

Jeff Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants in Greater Boston, said his group alone has 1,600 migrants on a waiting list for services. Since October, his team has connected nearly 3,000 migrants, most from Haiti, to services like food benefits and health insurance.

“We don’t have other states busing people up here, but people are coming anyway,” he said. “We are seeing a crush of people. And we are certainly feeling overwhelmed.”

There are political considerations as well. Compared to other emergencies, the migrant crisis is less tangible, making it difficult to convey the urgency to residents and local leaders who don’t interact with homeless or migrant families on a daily basis.

Moreover, some Democratic strategists said the new governor likely doesn’t want to show weakness or appear as if she can’t handle the situation on her own.

“No one looks down on a governor who says we need federal help because a hurricane just hit us,” longtime Democratic consultant Jason Cincotti said. “But something like the homelessness crisis . . . I can understand why a politician isn’t going to rush into that.”

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The migrant influx here differs in critical ways from other places such as Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., which are receiving busloads of migrants sent by officials in Texas and Arizona to make a political point. Massachusetts is also not facing the same pressures as the border states that have seen 1.4 million encounters since October, according to federal immigration authorities.

In early May, then-Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an emergency declaration calling for state and federal help to house migrant and homeless families, some of whom were sleeping in police stations. She said more than 8,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago in the past year. Last fall, Washington, D.C., declared a public health emergency, citing the arrival of about 9,400 migrants sent by officials in Texas and Arizona.

In December 2022, El Paso — a border city that marks the first stop for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals — declared a state of emergency in hopes of receiving money and staffing from the state of Texas. In May, officials converted two middle schools into migrant shelters using federal money.

New York City also issued an executive order, citing an influx of more than 17,000 migrants over several months. New York Governor Kathy Hochul also issued an executive order that would allow the state to use as many as 500 additional National Guard members to help with logistics and operations at shelter sites.

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In January, Florida Governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis activated the National Guard via executive order to respond to an influx of migrants arriving in the Florida Keys. DeSantis said law enforcement has intercepted more than 8,000 migrants since August 2022.

State officials said no Massachusetts communities have passed their own emergency declarations nor have they asked Healey’s office to do something similar.

Under an emergency declaration, governors can bypass normal procurement rules that require a competitive bid process, allowing them to more quickly hire vendors and contractors or rent places for people to stay. An emergency declaration also allows the state to more expediently mobilize members of the National Guard to help in the response.

Such a declaration also enables the governor to formally appeal to the president for disaster relief funding, which could include money for emergency housing, food, and water.

“It’s everything that would be available for a natural disaster,” McGrail said.

Those who work with homeless and migrant families believe that while a declaration could open the door to more help, the potential benefits would provide only temporary relief for a situation that demands a more permanent answer.

“We need both an emergency and long-term solution to start to impact this crisis,” said Leah Bradley, executive director of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, describing the federal help a state of emergency could bring as at most a “Band-aid.”

Shortly after he was sworn in as the state’s first standalone housing secretary in decades, Edward M. Augustus Jr. said he would consider using federal funds to deal with overwhelmed shelters, but offered few details.

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“It is going to, by necessity, be a partnership between the federal government, the state government, and local cities and towns,” he said. “It won’t work otherwise.”

Massachusetts governors have used states of emergency mostly in response to weather events such as blizzards and hurricanes, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even without an emergency declaration, a number of Massachusetts groups have received funding through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which was funded by Congress to help localities dealing with newly arrived migrants and other unhoused people. The program is being phased out, and regardless, some beneficiaries said it still wasn’t enough.

“You look at the need in this area versus what we are awarded in funding,” said Megan Moynihan of United Way of Pioneer Valley. Her county received $258,000 through the program this year. “The disparity is unbelievable,” she said.

Boston received about $877,000, according to the federal agency, and has spent $220,000 to help nonprofits house migrant families. Officials said declaring a state of emergency would not result in the city receiving additional resources or support.

To be sure, the Healey administration has worked for months to address the crisis, including adding tens of millions to the emergency shelter system, as well as directing an infusion to local organizations helping migrants with case management and legal assistance.

The state’s housing agency expects to hire more than 50 additional staff to help those seeking shelter, a spokesperson said. It’s also trying to improve its call center, which receives the majority of contacts and applications for shelter and is overwhelmed with the volume.

Those who work with migrant, refugee, and homeless families acknowledge that while emergency funding would be welcome, more permanent housing solutions and expedited work permits for asylum seekers would best support people trying to get on their feet.

Thielman, who works to connect migrants with services in Greater Boston, agreed that the federal government needs to help on “a more global level” to address the needs.

“What’s necessary is a multipronged approach,” said Thielman, who recently met with members of the state’s congressional delegation on the issue. “If these folks could get employment authorization quickly, they won’t be a burden on our shelter system. . . . I don’t know if we are at a point in this state where the federal government assistance is necessary.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.