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Mass. lawmakers ask Biden administration to speed up migrant work permits

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, and Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., left.Steve LeBlanc/Associated Press

WASHINGTON—As Massachusetts strains to accommodate a growing number of migrants seeking support there, the state’s congressional delegation is asking the Biden administration to change its rules to allow them to work sooner.

In a letter this week, Bay State lawmakers, led by Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, appealed to the Department of Homeland Security and its sub-agency, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, to expedite the process of issuing work permits so newly arriving immigrants are not stuck for months without sources of income, reliant on state services.

Employment Authorization Documents, permits that allow non-US citizens to work legally in the United States, are not automatically granted even when an immigrant is allowed to enter the US, only after they file an application. Processing times for those applications currently can be upwards of 5 months, leaving migrants struggling to get by in the meantime.

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In the letter, signed by the entire all-Democratic delegation and shared first with the Globe, the lawmakers requested three changes including: to automatically grant a provisional work permit to a migrant who has been officially paroled into the US as soon as they submit their application, rather than making them wait the full processing time, to make parole at the border a standard two years, consistent with other parole programs and to automatically renew work authorizations when an immigrants’ parole status is also renewed.

The changes would only apply to migrants who are officially paroled, or temporarily allowed, into the United States, either from their home country through new sponsorship programs or directly at the border.

“Massachusetts will continue to welcome and assist new arrivals as they resettle across the Commonwealth,” the lawmakers wrote. “The federal government can help relieve the strain on available resources in the Commonwealth by removing obstacles new arrivals face when trying to work legally.”

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Along with a number of other states with large urban populations, Massachusetts is struggling with the volume of new migrants. Shelters are at capacity and the state is placing some families in hotels, as the state’s 1983 “right to shelter” law requires it to provide for unhoused migrant families. The governor’s office said that a group of senior officials from Governor Maura Healey’s administration had briefed the congressional delegation on the issue Monday morning and asked for help with work authorizations.

“We’re grateful to our federal delegation for their leadership,” Healey said in a statement. “This would have a major impact on our strained shelter system and the wellbeing of these families while also supporting our employers and filling workforce needs.”

The Globe estimated roughly 11,000 came to the state in 2022, though exact numbers of how many migrants have come into the state are difficult to come by. Since the creation of Biden administration’s new parole program for certain countries, at least 160,000 individuals have come to the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. This population is less likely to end up in shelters, however, as the program requires an individual to have a financially responsible sponsor in the United States.

But thousands of other migrants have been paroled into the United States when they show up at a lawful border crossing, usually seeking asylum or protection, and given an order to appear in immigration court at a later date. That population, along with other asylum seekers and those who come into the country illegally, have been making their way to Massachusetts and other states and overwhelming government and nonprofit resources that have long been straining to keep up with migrant populations.

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Other groups of lawmakers this year have asked the administration for more and faster work authorizations for migrants, though the administration has not yet granted their requests.

Those who work with migrants on the ground in Massachusetts say any change that would make a difference.

“If people were paroled in with a right to work, that would save time and money, get people into the economy and help businesses across the country, so it’s a good economic move, it seems to me,” said Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, which helps resettle refugees and assists other immigrants access government resources.

He said his organization has worked with roughly 3,600 Haitian parolees in Massachusetts since October 1, 2022, with about 60 percent getting parole at the border and 40 percent being sponsored.

An immediate reaction from the Biden administration may not be likely. The agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, and changes like the ones proposed can take considerable time for an administration to implement.

But Thielman hopes such actions will come.

“Running an organization that is serving thousands of Haitians, all of whom seem to want to work right away, that’s the first thing they talk about — the fact that our government is making it difficult for them to go out and work is silly and short-sighted,” Thielman said.

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Globe staff writer Mike Damiano contributed to this report.


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her @talkopan.