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Amid backdrop of migrant crisis, Mass. Legislature considers cash, food aid for legal immigrants

People carried boxes while gathering Thanksgiving meal items at a giveaway hosted by La Colaborativa in Chelsea last year.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

When Keydi Figueroa fled Honduras with her husband and three children after falling victim to a violent crime, she landed in Chelsea in pursuit of a better life.

Instead Figueroa, who has a medical condition that put her out of work, spends one day a week in line at a food pantry and relies on her husband to provide enough money for the family of five to get by, she told Massachusetts lawmakers Tuesday.

Figueroa, 42, is in the process of attaining a U visa, which is set aside for victims of certain crimes who assist law enforcement or government officials in investigating criminal activity. But the process is long and winding, and in the meantime, the family has had a hard time putting food on the table.


“The struggle to make ends meet has become a nightmare,” Figueroa said in Spanish at a hearing considering legislation that would revive a program that makes some legal immigrants, such as refugees and asylum seekers, eligible for popular safety net programs including food assistance and cash benefits.

For Figueroa and thousands like her who have fled turmoil in their home countries to Massachusetts, her family’s status holds them back from accessing such benefits afforded to other low-income families in the state.

Meanwhile, the state’s shelter system has been struggling for months to accommodate an influx of migrant families, prompting Governor Maura Healey to make an emergency declaration and activate the Massachusetts National Guard to connect people with food and resources.

Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state with such a requirement.

“I have to choose between buying food and meeting the other basic needs in my household,” Figueroa said at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Tuesday, where lawmakers heard testimony from social workers, nonprofit leaders, lawmakers, and immigrants like Figueroa in support of the bill.


If the Legislature were to eventually pass the bill into law, Massachusetts would join six other states — including nearby Maine and Connecticut — in providing benefits to legal immigrants.

The proposal is not a new idea in the Commonwealth.

In 1997, a year after Congress passed a welfare reform law that excluded legal immigrants from accessing food aid and cash benefits, the state Legislature intervened and unanimously voted to make such benefits available to those people in Massachusetts using state funding. That eligibility was revoked in 2002.

“It wasn’t a good decision then, and it’s worse policy now,” said state Representative Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who played a role in the 1997 effort to provide benefits to immigrants. He is now leading the House’s effort to revive the policy.

“No child of an essential worker in Massachusetts should go hungry,” Cabral said.

A similar piece of legislation calling for the same benefits was also filed in the Senate by Everett Senator Sal DiDomenico.

Supporters are hopeful the bills gain traction this year, citing the fact that Speaker Ronald J. Mariano supported the policy in 1997, when he was a lower-ranking representative.

Patricia Baker of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said bringing back the 1990s-era policy is long overdue, and will help families “get on their feet,” helping them to move out of the state’s overwhelmed shelters, which have been pushed to the brink amid the current migration crisis.


The current immigration system is also overwhelmed, Baker said, and the patchwork of federal laws has created an uneven framework for migrants seeking assistance, she said.

At the same time, the cost of rent, food, and utilities has skyrocketed, and families have struggled as many federal pandemic aid programs have ended.

“They do not make enough, and they cannot have SNAP benefits,” she said. “We have essential workers with work authorization who cannot support their families.”

Members of a coalition pushing for the bill estimate that restoring the benefits for eligible immigrants would cost the state about $18 million in fiscal year 2024.

That money could provide an average of $180 per month in SNAP benefits to between 8,000 and 12,000 immigrants, plus an average of $300 per month in cash benefits to about 1,000 to 1,500 immigrant families, supporters said.

At La Colaborativa in Chelsea, where 7,000 people — including Figueroa and her family — line up twice a week to receive food, the change could be transformative.

Executive director Gladys Vega, who started the organization’s food pantry out of her home during the COVID-19 pandemic, said many of the people who rely on donated food are immigrants with legal status who are struggling with unreliable work hours and the high cost of living.

“I was a child who had to go to school for breakfast and lunch because, at home, I didn’t know what I would have. That is the reality for many of our kids,” said Vega, who moved to Chelsea from Puerto Rico at a young age. “At times, we run out of food at the food pantry. We have such a need.”


Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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