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‘Now is the time to pivot’: Democratic state representative slams Healey’s response to migrant crisis

Representative William J. Driscoll wrote that Governor Maura Healey's administration is “underutilizing” tools the state has to respond to the migrant crisis, and is “barely keeping pace” with the number of families arriving daily in Massachusetts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A state House leader from her own party slammed Governor Maura Healey’s response to the state’s escalating migration crisis, writing in a pointed letter that the administration must revamp its efforts to house the thousands of families arriving in Massachusetts.

Representative William J. Driscoll, cochair of the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management, wrote Monday the governor’s administration is “underutilizing” tools the state has to respond to the crisis, and is “barely keeping pace” with the number of families arriving daily in Massachusetts.

“A pivot is necessary and overdue,” wrote the Milton Democrat, an emergency expert who led various national disaster response groups before joining the Legislature in 2017.


In a statement, a spokesperson for the governor said her office is “reviewing the letter.”

The spokesperson, Karissa Hand, pointed out the fact that the administration created a structure in May to manage the emergency, and said that because of the coordination, the state has “successfully expanded critical service capacity and provided safe and secure shelter to thousands of children and families in need.”

In total, nearly 6,300 families are currently housed in the state’s shelter system. Roughly 800 families have been placed in shelters in the last month.

The arrival of families needing shelter and support has pushed the emergency shelter system to the brink, and state officials are increasingly turning to hotels and motels, where nearly 2,700 families are now being housed.

That, in turn, has forced local officials to scramble — sometimes, they say, with little help. Healey has already called a state of emergency and activated up to 250 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to assist at more than 40 hotels that don’t have a contracted service provider, typically a nonprofit, to help families access medical care, find transportation, or organize food deliveries.


Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, making it the only state in the country with such a requirement. The mandate doesn’t apply to homeless people.

In his letter, Driscoll said that though Healey had declared a state of emergency, “the structure and cadence of the response underway is not recognizable to many with a lifetime of emergency management experience and expertise.”

The scale of the crisis is massive, he wrote, and “the proverbial candle has been burned at both ends by many individuals who have worked hard to provide families in need of shelter with placements, care and attention.”

“Now is the time to pivot,” he urged.

Driscoll recommended the administration create a unified command structure with experts and interagency professionals, similar to what the state has done to respond to emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic or the Merrimack Valley gas explosions of 2018.

In those instances, there was a regular cadence of public news conferences and situation reports and a day-to-day use of a command structure that convened people responding to the emergency in different regions of the state.

“Now, we just seem to be continually playing catch-up,” Driscoll said in an interview Monday night.

Driscoll’s letter follows private briefings by Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh, and Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus last week in which the leaders updated state representatives about the emergency shelter system.

Representatives expressed their frustrations with the administration’s communication around the migrant crisis at that meeting, the State House News Service reported, echoing concerns that had been growing at the local level.


The private meetings followed a call Healey made to the Biden administration last week, imploring federal officials 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.

Healey’s call echoes the frustration of other state and municipal leaders. Last month, Senators Edward J. 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.

Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her @samanthajgross.