Mass. welcome mat for migrants starting to fray

As numbers keep rising, state is having trouble keeping up

A YEAR AGO, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used state tax funds to fly two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. It was a political stunt designed to stoke DeSantis’s presidential profile and give Massachusetts a small taste of the immigration crisis roiling the country’s southern border.

The incident attracted national attention and Massachusetts officials went out of their way to show how welcoming the state could be. “We are a community that comes together to support immigrants,” said state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents Martha’s Vineyard.

But a year later, in the face of a rising tide of migrants coming to the state, the welcome mat is starting to wear thin. Concerns are rising, particularly in local communities playing host to emergency shelters, and Gov. Maura Healey’s administration is openly admitting it is struggling to keep up with a humanitarian problem that shows no signs of abating.

On August 8, Healey declared a state of emergency in the face of 5,500 families living in shelters provided by the state. She said she was proud of the state’s efforts to help people in need of shelter and other necessities, but warned that the problem was getting out of hand because fewer people are leaving emergency shelters because of a lack of available affordable housing and more migrants are arriving every day.

“Even though we are currently spending more than $45 million per month on programs to help these families, our ability to create enough new shelter space and to provide necessary supportive services is falling short,” said Healey in a letter to federal officials. “Simply put, we do not currently have the tools we need to meet the rapidly rising demand for emergency shelter.”

On Thursday, a month later, the number of families in emergency shelter had risen to 6,200, an increase of nearly 13 percent. By Monday, the number was up to 6,373 and continuing to rise. The Healey administration, which has brought in the National Guard to help provide services at hastily arranged shelters, hasn’t released a new estimate of the cost of its shelter effort, but it’s probably well in excess of $50 million a month by now.

Healey has tried to remain positive, with her latest gambit to make lemonade out of lemons by asking the Biden administration to bend federal immigration rules to allow migrants to start jobs more quickly and fill job openings in the rebounding economy.

“From healthcare to manufacturing to leisure and hospitality, our industries need more workers. Every work authorization issued represents an opportunity to meet employer needs, support our economy, and reduce dependency among new arrivals,” Healey wrote on September 7.

So far, the Biden administration hasn’t budged – the politics are complicated for a president seeking reelection at a time when Republican candidates are accusing the administration of leaving the borders unprotected.

Rep. William Driscoll Jr. of Milton, the House chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management, sent a letter to Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll on Monday urging them to start treating the shelter situation as the emergency they have declared it is.  He called for a unified command structure within state government and a more aggressive approach to dealing with the problem.

“The structure and cadence of the response underway is not recognizable to many with a lifetime of emergency management experience and expertise,” Driscoll wrote. “Approximately 800 families have entered the [emergency shelter] system in the past month alone and a new highwater mark of families in the system is being set week after week. The calling up of additional National Guard along with recent briefings to legislators, municipalities, and NGOs underscores that we are entering a new phase of the crisis. It is well past time for the Commonwealth’s plan and approach to evolve.”