WOBURN — For three months, Nixon Blais’s family has been living in a roadside hotel, waiting for paperwork to clear so the young father can get a construction job.
In Haiti, which Blais and his wife, Dieulene Pluvoise, fled in 2017, their 4-year-old son Bronwly would be enrolled in school by now. But here, he plays games on a tablet and sifts through a bag of donated games. His three older siblings remain in Haiti, though Blais hopes to reunite the family eventually.
For now, the trio rely on food provided by the state — powdered milk, cereal, iced tea mix, and pre-made meals — as Blais moves through the tedious and time-intensive process of obtaining permission to work legally in the United States.
“It’s not the best, but we feel safe,” Blais said in Haitian Creole.
The family’s life offers a window into the life of migrants in Massachusetts, often fleeing violence in their home countries, who are caught in the middle of a game of a political football between Beacon Hill and Washington, D.C., over the state’s overburdened shelter system. While politicians trade platitudes and blame, families who are already here are hoping for movement so they can gain employment, earn money, and move into apartments of their own.
“We are just waiting,” Blais said, noting that his physical strength and language skills would make him a strong job candidate.
State leaders including Governor Maura Healey have called on the federal government for more money and for changes in immigration policy that would speed up the process for new arrivals to obtain work permits. Federal officials, meanwhile, say they are working to grant temporary legal status to certain populations who are already in the United States, making them eligible to work more quickly than otherwise.
The Department of Homeland Security is hosting a work authorization clinic this month to help migrants in shelter here get their permit applications sent in, and a spokesperson said it will continue to “manage our nation’s broken immigration system in a safe, orderly, and humane way until Congress acts to fix it.”
Meanwhile, the cost of sheltering homeless families in Massachusetts has grown as more and more migrants land.
For decades, homeless families have been guaranteed shelter under a 1980s-era law in Massachusetts, the only state with a so-called right-to-shelter requirement. But Healey recently decided to limit how many people could live in the shelter system, which she described as a painstaking yet necessary step to ease the burden.
Since the beginning of the year, the system has had to rapidly expand as a growing influx of migrants fleeing turmoil and poverty in places like Haiti and Central and South America has intersected with a housing crisis that makes it nearly impossible for many new arrivals to find affordable shelter.
At the center of the crisis are families like Blais’s, whose story echoes those of countless other migrants who have made their way to Massachusetts in hopes of shielding their family from violence and poverty in their home countries.
After fleeing Haiti, the couple first moved to Chile, where they lived for several years and had their son. Three months ago, they crossed the US-Mexico border into Texas, making their way to a church-supported refugee camp in San Antonio. They were supposed to live with a family member there, but the relative had a change of heart. So they acquired three donated tickets to fly to Massachusetts, a state they knew nothing about until they boarded the plane.
When they landed at Logan Airport, they first went to the Boston Medical Center emergency room, where they had heard they could get connected with housing and food. From there, they were put in an Uber to the Brazilian Worker Center in Allston, which placed them in a Woburn hotel shelter, currently being staffed by the Massachusetts National Guard.
“We didn’t know where we were being sent,” Blais said.
Pluvoise hadn’t heard of the proposal until a reporter informed her, She said that the news “is a shock.”
She hugged Bronwly closer.
Like Blais’s family, Rodney Senat has been living with his wife and 1-year-old child in the Woburn hotel for the past three months.
He said he is “60 percent happy” in Woburn, finding it a safe place but not ideal.
The family left Haiti on Aug. 6, landing first in Arizona, then traveling on to New York, where Senat’s wife had family. He heard on the radio and read on the internet that Massachusetts had nonprofit organizations that could help.
So the family also made their way to Boston Medical Center and were sent to the Brazilian Worker Center, which helped them find shelter and arrange immigration documents. Senat’s asylum case is set to go before a judge in 2024.
For now, they are hoping to get work documents so Senat can pay for the costs of seeking asylum and eventually get his family into an apartment.
“Work is very, very important,” Senat said in Haitian Creole. “I need money for my asylum case.”
Not all families at the shelter are recent arrivals.
Vince Dieujust and his wife, Kelide Baguidy came to the United States from Haiti three years ago with their two children in hopes of a better life. They moved first to New York and then to Orlando, ultimately settling in Boston, where they thought it would be quicker to obtain a work permit.
Both had work — Diejust at a produce distributor in Chelsea and Baguidy at a factory in East Wareham — but both worked overnight shifts and long hours, and it grew to be too much. Diejust’s commute from Chelsea to their apartment in Mattapan felt dangerous in the early morning hours and Baguidy, who became pregnant while working in East Wareham, was starting to feel the toll on her body.
They left their jobs and sought state assistance so they could better support Ashley, 3, and Joaquin, 5.
For nearly three weeks, they have been living in Woburn and soon, Joaquin will be enrolled in school. Baguidy is due in January and hopes they can find work soon and secure a place to settle down.
State officials have emphasized other steps they’ve taken to help move families out of shelters, including partnering with the federal government to help migrants apply for work authorization documents at a clinic later this month. The state said it would also offer housing vouchers to roughly 1,200 families who have been in the emergency shelter system longer than 18 months, and is piloting a job-training program in Salem for those living in shelters.
“I am feeling stressed, but being resilient,” Baguidy said. “Resilient is a word we like to use in Haiti.”