WASHINGTON — In the face of a growing chorus of demands to show more leadership and make policy changes to alleviate the burdens on states and cities trying to accommodate swelling numbers of migrants, the Biden administration announced Friday night that it would send a team to Massachusetts to assess the situation.
The move comes after an increasing number of Democrats, not Republicans, issued some of the sharpest criticism at the president of their own party over the handling of the migrant influx.
A White House spokesperson told the Globe Friday that a team from the Department of Homeland Security will go to the state to “assess the current migrant situation and identify ways to improve efficiencies and maximize our support for communities that are addressing the needs of migrants.”
Representative Jake Auchincloss, a Massachusetts Democrat, this week called on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to send an assessment team of officials to the state to “see with their own eyes that this is not a sustainable scenario.”
“I’m really looking for Secretary Mayorkas to act with the same sense of urgency and severity that state and local officials are grappling with. It’s a mismatch right now,” he said in an interview before the announcement.
In reaction to the news, Auchincloss called it “an important step toward results and relief for Massachusetts.”
As places like Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois struggle to provide housing and services to an increasing number of arriving migrants, some officials in those blue states are going public with their frustration with the White House.
“He needs to see with his own eyes what are we dealing with here,” said Massachusetts state Representative Adam J. Scanlon, a Democrat from Bristol County who wrote to Biden along with North Attleborough officials about the strain caused by the arrival of 30 migrant families in that town of about 31,000 residents in recent weeks. “We can’t fix this with Scotch tape and some chicken wire, which is what the federal government has given us so far.”
Scanlon’s call for Biden to get more involved was echoed this week by Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano, who said, “The guy’s running for president. He better start paying attention to this.” Governor Maura T. Healey has met with Mayorkas and written two letters to him in recent weeks seeking more federal assistance and speedier work permits for migrants, after declaring a state of emergency and deploying the National Guard to help manage Massachusetts’ overwhelmed shelter system.
“Our administration welcomes the opportunity to show officials from the Department of Homeland Security the extremely challenging situation we are facing here in Massachusetts and discuss much-needed federal support,” Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand said Friday night.
Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York City and sharp critic of Biden on immigration, went on a four-day trip to Latin America this week to tell deliver a blunt message: ”There is no more room in New York.” On Monday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker wrote to Biden with a list of steps to address what he called an “untenable situation,” including a recommendation that Biden appoint a White House point person to coordinate migrant resettlement and states’ needs.
“There is much more that can and must be done on a federal level to address a national humanitarian crisis that is currently being shouldered by state and local governments without support,” Pritzker wrote.
Republicans have long been critical of Biden on border security and immigration, consistent with their party’s push for hard-line anti-immigration measures and political attacks on Democrats on the issue. But the increasingly pointed criticism from members of Biden’s own party, albeit with different requests than Republicans, has complicated the politics of immigration for the president.
Democrats acknowledge that Congress ultimately is responsible for overhauling a broken immigration system as well as allocating the additional money they say is desperately needed. They blame Republicans for years of blocking comprehensive reform that would combine increased border security with other improvements, including work permits for undocumented immigrants and a pathway to citizenship for some of them.
“The president can only do so much. Now, what is within his power are some tweaks to the system, and I think that’s where Democrats want him to do a bit more, a bit more quickly,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Asked if there’s a political risk for Biden on the matter heading into an election year, Auchincloss said, “The president is well aware of the potency of immigration as a political issue.”
The problem has been building for months. Record numbers of migrants, many fleeing crises in their home countries, have been crossing the southern border seeking protection or better lives in the United States.
Exacerbating the problem for Massachusetts and other Democrat-led states has been a busing program by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott to transport migrants to their cities.
While immigrants have long made their way naturally to such cities in search of jobs or connecting with family, the busing program has condensed those arrivals, often at odd times and without the legwork for the migrants to figure out their plans once they arrive. Local officials and nonprofits have strained to keep up with the arrivals. Massachusetts in particular has been struggling because of a state law that requires it to provide housing to homeless families. New York City has a similar requirement.
Spokespeople for the White House and Homeland Security sent a list of actions taken by the administration on immigration, a mix of efforts to speed up deportations of those migrants ineligible to stay, and the process of getting work authorization for those who meet the criteria to remain. In a significant move, the administration announced last month that migrants from Venezuela who had arrived before August would be eligible for temporary protections from deportation that include work permits, a plan that could authorize almost 500,000 more migrants to work.
The Department of Homeland Security is also accelerating processing for work authorizations for those migrants who came to the US through preferred programs, as opposed to illegally crossing the border, to 30 days from 90. The duration of work permits will be extended for other groups to reduce caseloads, as well.
The White House spokesperson said the administration was in close contact with local leaders “and will remain in coordination with the city and commonwealth to determine best practices and ways in which the federal government can support Boston and Massachusetts over the coming weeks and months, or until Congress takes action to fix our nation’s broken immigration system.”
But there are other steps the administration can’t or has yet to take. Under law, asylum seekers must wait six months after filing their claims to get work authorizations. Any changes to that law would require congressional action. Massachusetts lawmakers have also asked the administration to automatically give migrants who have been legally authorized into the US a provisional work permit as soon as they submit their application, rather than making them wait the full processing time. That likely would require formal regulations, though, which take time.
“The White House has a strategy, they’re just not good at articulating it, and the elements of the strategy are popular and smart, and they need to say why they’re doing the things they’re doing,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesperson for America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group. “It comes from being reactive and not proactive, out there articulating a narrative.”
Scanlon acknowledged that Congress must deal with the problem but right now he hopes the White House will take whatever action it can. In the letter to Biden, which also went to Auchincloss as well as Massachusetts Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Scanlon and the North Attleborough officials called for action.
“This is unacceptable knowing that the federal government is dropping this crisis in our laps without any financial support,” they wrote.
Asked if he planned to try to reach out more directly to Biden, Scanlon responded, “Do you have his number?”