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Healey tells Biden administration Mass. has ‘desperate need’ for faster work authorizations for migrants

Haitian migrants filled a waiting room inside Immigrant Families Services Institute in May.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Maura Healey on Thursday implored the Biden administration to quickly grant work permits to the thousands of migrants who have overwhelmed the state’s shelter system in recent months.

“The significant influx of new arrivals . . . shows no sign of abating,” Healey wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Massachusetts, she added, faces a “desperate need” for federal funding, changes to federal immigration policy, and, most urgent of all, faster processing of work authorizations for migrants who are legally present in the state’s shelters but not allowed to work.

The firmly worded letter followed an August meeting between Healey and Mayorkas about the state’s escalating migration crisis, which has led the governor to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard in recent weeks.


The strain on the system is expected to grow. During a briefing with state senators on Thursday, state officials estimated that roughly 1,000 families are expected to enter the emergency shelter system each month, according to two senators who attended.

A spokesperson for the state’s Office of Housing and Livable Communities confirmed that estimate was provided and said the state has placed roughly 800 families in the last month.

In total, nearly 6,300 families are currently housed in the state’s shelter system, including nearly 2,700 in hotels that state officials have rented in their entirety because regular shelter beds are full. Some of the families are migrants; others are longer-term Massachusetts residents who are homeless.

State officials and immigration advocates have argued that the federal government’s long backlog of work permit applications has become a key obstacle in helping migrants exit the shelters and live independently.

Dr. Geralde Gabeau, the executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, said many of the Haitian migrants her group serves have been waiting since last year for their applications to be processed. Most of the migrants she works with are eligible for permits and could work immediately once the cards arrived.


“So often people describe watching the mailbox to see if the card is coming,” she said. “Every single person who comes here, the first thing they want to do is work.”

Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank, said the backlog for work permits has now reached 20 months in one immigration program — known as Temporary Protected Status — available to Haitians.

In her letter, Healey argued that granting working authorizations more quickly could solve two problems at once.

“With a historically low unemployment rate, tens of thousands of open jobs across our state are going unfilled,” she wrote.

Healey’s call echoes the frustration of other state and municipal leaders. Last month, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation sent a letter urging the Biden administration to change federal rules to allow migrants to work sooner. The governors of New York, Illinois, and Colorado have issued similar calls.

In New York City, which has seen an influx of more than 100,000 migrants since last year, Mayor Eric Adams has pleaded with the Biden administration to quickly grant work permits.

Last month, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell and 18 other state attorneys general also wrote to Mayorkas asking for expedited work authorizations.


In the Aug. 24 meeting at the State House, Healey asked Mayorkas for specific policy changes to ease the work permit bottleneck.

One of the requests echoed a demand made by some immigration advocates: The government should treat a work permit application as a provisional authorization.

The applications, Gabeau said, contain all of the documentation demonstrating a migrant’s eligibility for a work permit. “If [federal officials] could just produce the card in a timely fashion, it would really save a lot of headache,” she said.

But Chishti said the solution is not that simple. There is no legal way for the federal government to issue provisional work permits under current laws and regulations, he said.

“These are real issues of bureaucratic log jams that are creating the problems,” he said.

The log jam threatens to undermine the Healey administration’s efforts to help migrants become self-sufficient.

The state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants is currently negotiating a contract with immigration service providers to help migrants living in hotels prepare their work permit applications.

“The state would like us to shift staff over to this work right away,” said Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, a migrant aid group. “It would be a huge help,” Thielman said, if the federal government would grant a temporary work permit upon receipt of a completed application.

“You could go get a job right away,” he said.


Many migrants without work authorizations take low-paying jobs off the books to survive. The jobs — in family-owned grocery stores or on landscaping crews — can be a lifeline. But they also leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation.

In March, federal prosecutors charged the owner of a Massachusetts pizza store chain with abusing his workers, who were migrants from North Africa, Brazil, and El Salvador without work permits. The owner, Stavros Papantoniadis, assaulted at least one worker and threatened others that he would report them to immigration authorities if they did not meet his demands, according to a criminal complaint.

The tens of thousands of migrants who have reached Massachusetts in the past two years have come to the United States through a variety of immigration programs or, in some cases, through no program at all.

Some have received humanitarian parole as they fled violence in Ukraine or Afghanistan. Others have arrived under special programs the Biden administration has created for migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela — countries riven by political strife and economic breakdown.

Still more crossed the southern border — from Mexico into Texas — after harrowing journeys through Central America. Many entered the country without authorization and were then granted parole so they could pursue asylum claims or other forms of legal status.

Most of these migrants can be eligible for work authorizations but on different timelines. Asylum seekers must wait 150 days after submitting their asylum claim to apply for work authorization — and then wait months longer for the permit to arrive. Border crossers released into the country can apply for a work permit right away, but their card may not arrive before their temporary legal status expires.


Migrants in the Biden program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans have tended to receive work permits more quickly, within about three months.

Gabeau said that work permits change the course of a migrant’s life in Massachusetts.

“It is a lifesaving opportunity,” she said. “You are a free agent, rather than waiting on others to feed and house you.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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