Eliminate 'backlogs.' Gov. Healey asks feds to expedite work authorizations for migrants

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Gov. Maura Healey is asking for federal help with streamlining work authorizations for migrants and refugees filling emergency shelters in Massachusetts, including on Cape Cod, in a recent letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas,

The Sept. 7 letter spells out several requests but the most important one is speeding up the process whereby migrants who are in Massachusetts legally get work authorizations. The process can take many months, according to Susan Church, chief operating officer with the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants. 

What Healey is asking for is that if migrants are legally here, and if they’re eligible to apply right away for work authorizations that the application should be enough, Church said on Wednesday.

“Once you prove that you’ve applied, you shouldn’t have to wait in backlogs,” she said.

For example, most of the Haitian families that come to the U.S. come with an appointment through an electronic app that U.S. Customs and Border Protection controls, Church said. Those individuals are eligible for work authorizations on the day that they arrive, she added.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey

“I can absolutely, 100% assure you that the individuals in our shelters are not illegal or undocumented,” Church said. “People are not here in our shelters illegally. They are not eligible for shelter if they are undocumented.”

In order to be eligible for shelter in Massachusetts, a person must be here under the term, “present under the color of law,” Church said. That means the person is known to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and is pursuing his or her status in court or through another legal method.

A state of emergency declared on Aug. 8 in Massachusetts due to the influx of migrants

Healey declared a state of emergency Aug. 8 because of an influx of migrants, particularly families from Haiti. Since 1983, state officials have been required by law to offer housing to any homeless family seeking shelter. The law covers migrant families who are in the U.S. legally. Families who are wholly undocumented, and whose presence is not acknowledged by federal immigration authorities, are not eligible for emergency shelter assistance.

There are 6,409 families in shelter, including both new arrivals and long-term Massachusetts residents, according to a Healey administration spokesperson who communicated only on background. It’s estimated that about 1/3 of them are new arrivals.

Putting migrants to work expeditiously is a high priority of the Healey/Driscoll administration, Church said. The state is working with MassHire, a statewide network of businesses and job seekers, to coordinate work authorizations and job openings so people can get to work as quickly as possible.  She noted the need for workers on Cape Cod.

More: Yarmouth leaders send letter to Healey as residents object to displaced families housing

“These are extremely talented, hard-working individuals,” Church said. "They are ready, willing and able to work. They are an incredible asset to our state and we’re happy to have them.”

On Cape Cod, seasonal workers are one example of shortages

Prior to COVID-19, as many as 8,000 foreign workers with J-1 or H-2B visas had been part of the seasonal workforce surge on Cape Cod, according to Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Paul Niedzwiecki in 2022.

After the pandemic, that number dropped precipitously.

Travel restrictions, visa processing issues at embassies and lack of housing on the Cape have all been factors. Only 40% of those workers returned in 2022, Niedzwiecki said.

It is not a temporary thing, he warned. Housing problems, an increase in the median price of a single-family home from an average of $400,000 to $660,000, a transfer of wealth and a population shift mean it’s not going away, he said.

“It’s created a permanent issue that we have to deal with,” Niedzwiecki said.

A request to expedite work authorizations sent by Massachusetts Congress members, among others

Earlier, on Aug. 1, a request to to expedite work authorizations was sent to Mayorkas and Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ur M. Jaddou by a host of lawmakers. In the letter U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Massachusetts, among others, noted that an expanded parole program allows 30,000 nationals each month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, who have eligible sponsors, to apply for parole due to urgent humanitarian needs. The letter asked that a parolee’s application for work authorization receive provisional approval.

A significant number of migrants coming to Massachusetts are coming from Haiti because of the country’s instability, according to Church. Haiti’s troubles date back decades. An earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 220,000 people according to the United Nations. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1.4 million were left in need of humanitarian assistance after a hurricane decimated the island in 2016, according to Reuters. In 2021 President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. The country’s instability was compounded with each event, and violent gangs expanded their territories.

That extensive deterioration caused a mass exodus, Church said. The U.N. estimates that in 2023 alone, 2,439 people have been killed, and 200,000 people internally displaced because of kidnappings, violence and food shortages according to Reuters.

Denise Coffey writes about business and tourism. Contact her at dcoffey@capecodonline.com. 

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Backlog of work authorizations for migrants needs fixed, Healey says