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As state pleads for federal help, Mass. lawmakers meet with Homeland Security secretary on migrants

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasSpencer Platt/Getty

WASHINGTON — Massachusetts’ representatives in Congress met with the secretary of Homeland Security for an hour on Wednesday morning to impress upon him the need for more assistance to deal with the number of migrants seeking shelter in the Commonwealth.

Representative Richard Neal of Springfield said he organized the meeting of the state’s all-Democratic delegation and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at the request of Governor Maura Healey. He described the meeting as a “free-flowing” conversation, but one that put forward the concerns that Healey and others in Massachusetts have raised about the state’s ability to continue to provide housing and assistance to migrants under its “right-to-shelter” laws.


A representative of the Healey administration was also present.

“We, I think, put the issues front and center,” Neal said of the group. “We can be of big heart, but we need big resources. ... We all accept the idea that this is a big challenge.”

The meeting came just days after Healey announced the state can no longer guarantee shelter for homeless and migrant families, effectively putting a no vacancy sign on the state’s overwhelmed emergency shelter system, which has been inundated by thousands of migrants arriving in Massachusetts.

Neal said Mayorkas did not describe the findings of a team his department recently sent to Massachusetts to see the situation on the ground, and said some of the conversation would remain private.

But he did say that Mayorkas noted the difficulty the nation faces in dealing with the flow of migrants as the sheer number of people coming to the southern border, who are fleeing violence and economic crises in their home countries, has overwhelmed the infrastructure the United States has to process them. Mayorkas also discussed the role smugglers play in encouraging and facilitating migrants’ travel, Neal said.


A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson noted that DHS has distributed $1 billion to support migrant resettlement around the country, including $2.8 million to Boston. The spokesperson said the meeting focused on how to support communities assisting migrants while also curtailing illegal immigration.

“The officials discussed how we can work together to ensure that migrants have access to the resources they need to find employment and reduce the strain on the state’s shelter operation,” the spokesperson said of the meeting. “DHS will continue to engage with state and local officials while we manage our nation’s broken immigration system in a safe, orderly, and humane way until Congress acts to fix it.”

The meeting with Mayorkas was just one floor down in the Capitol from the House chamber where Republicans are entering a third week without consensus on who should be speaker, leaving Congress paralyzed to respond to mounting problems at home and abroad. Neal noted that Congress will need to pass more money to respond to those crises, including likely some money and policies tailored toward addressing the situation at the border.

“There’s this conflation of events that seem, psychologically, pretty compelling,” Neal said. “But ... without a speaker, it’s hard to get on to some of the legislative proposals that we have.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren declined to discuss details of the meeting but said she has been pushing the Biden administration for more funding to help the state and specifically has lobbied Mayorkas to speed up the processing of work permits for migrants and to make the applications easier to fill out. The applications are only in English, Warren said, and she wants versions in Spanish and Haitian Creole.


“There are people in shelters who are saving up money so they can hire someone to translate the forms and help them get them all filled out. That makes no sense at all,” Warren said. “If people want to work, then we need to make that possible so that they can support themselves and move out of the shelters.”

In her announcement Monday, Healey warned that the state is unable to house more than 7,500 families, or 24,000 individuals, a limit officials expect to hit by month’s end. By then, the state will stop adding more shelter units, Healey said, marking a sharp pivot in her administration’s response to the ballooning crisis.

As of Tuesday, there were 7,023 families in the system, nearly 3,300 of whom are in hotels or motels. Though some migrants in the state have been allowed into the country legally, it can take months for them to get permission to work in the United States, leaving them dependent on state resources.

Lawmakers in Congress have joined Healey’s calls and similar pleas from governors around the country for the Department of Homeland Security to speed up the process for work permits. Healey and state lawmakers have called for federal officials to set up congregate sites to house immigrants, saying states and cities alone cannot absorb the costs of the crisis.


“We are entering a new phase of this challenge,” Healey said. “We can no longer guarantee shelter placement for families who are sent here.”

But some lawyers and immigration advocates are questioning whether the move effectively discontinues Massachusetts’ decades-old right-to-shelter law and exposes the state to possible litigation.

Under a 1983 law, the state guarantees emergency housing for eligible families and pregnant women. Healey said she is not seeking to end the law, but rather acknowledging the state is reaching its capacity to shelter families.

“We do not have enough shelter space, service providers, or funding to continue to safely or responsibly expand,” Karissa Hand, a Healey spokesperson, said Tuesday.

Tal Kopan can be reached at Follow her @talkopan. Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.