Federal aid sought as Brockton and beyond sees increase in migrants

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has called on the federal government to step in and provide more support to migrants seeking essential services in response to an increase in the number of people seeking assistance from local humanitarian aid organizations.

“Massachusetts is proud to welcome individuals and families seeking asylum and refuge and is dedicated to helping families live with dignity, but additional federal support is required,” Baker said in a recent letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Baker’s letter follows a call from the state’s congressional delegation for the federal government to step in and support organizations trying to manage an increasing number of migrants, especially in areas like Brockton and Stoughton, where some of 47 Venezuelan migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard in September have resettled.

According to the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, the state welcomed about 1,000 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers but delegation members wrote in their letter that the pace has increased this year in cities like Boston.

“Estimates suggest that over 2,000 migrants, primarily from Haiti and South American countries, arrived in the Boston area between May and August 2022,” they said. “Massachusetts organizations have capably provided dignified humanitarian assistance to people in need. However, they have also told us that they need more resources to support the growth in the number of migrants arriving within this relatively short period.”

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Catholic Charities Boston — the largest social services non-profit in Massachusetts, offering assistance ranging from food security to legal matters — has seen an increase recently in people requiring essential services, according to Marjean Perhot, vice president of refugee and immigration services.

“Our community sites in Brockton, Dorchester, South Boston definitely see an increase in foot traffic,” said Perhot, who has served in her position since 2005.

But she said it’s difficult to determine the exact number of migrants coming to community sites because the organization also serves non-migrants. The Brockton location on Court Street offers a food pantry, free English classes and other essential needs services.

“We don't want to scare anybody away, right? So, we're not going to say where are your papers? Where did you arrive from?” she said. “What I can say with certainty is that we do see an increase in people needing our services.”

Perhot noted that her team also has had to help community partners overwhelmed with intake.

“We are pivoting a lot and trying to think of creative ways to serve a high number of people at one time,” she said. “I think that's part of the challenge that all of us in the humanitarian business of making sure people are safe — we want to help, but you don't know who's coming, so we can’t be planful, we can’t organize.”

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The delegation’s letter, released by Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Oct. 25 and sent to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell and Emergency Food and Shelter Program (ESFP) —Chair Michael Lee, aimed to attract more outreach to location organizations in the state unaware of the federal support programs.

“We have already asked FEMA and DHS to award EFSP funds as quickly and with as little bureaucratic delay as possible to Massachusetts organizations that are providing humanitarian aid to migrants,” they said. “We also hope that FEMA would provide ample leadership of, or assistance with, these efforts, to avoid placing a major new burden on Massachusetts-based organizations, such as lead county agencies, that are already performing other crucial services for our communities.”

Catholic Charities Boston is one of the Massachusetts organizations receiving funding, but Perhot noted that obtaining FEMA and EFSP funds is a complicated process.

“It's not something that groups here have been applying for, and it's been more reserved for the border states,” she said. “[Massachusetts organizations] need some more guidance on that and streamlining the process — making it a little easier to apply and release those funds.”

She said that sometimes necessary funds can get held up in Washington, D.C., and take more time to come to local communities.

In addition to increasing access to federal funds, Baker’s letter said that the state needs more federal support in helping migrants obtain employment and rebuild their lives without straining local public services.

“A faster path to legal employment would not only provide these individuals with a path to self-sustainability but would also aid Massachusetts employers who are eager to hire amidst the current workforce shortage,” he said.

According to his letter, it can take up to a year for new arrivals to receive federal work authorization. Many asylum-seekers aren’t eligible until their asylum application has been pending for 180 days.

Perhot said expediting work authorization processes could help many migrants seeking help from organizations like Catholic Charities and is a big way the federal government can support Massachusetts.

“Having a work permit and having a job is one of the first ways that [migrants] can start to get on their own two feet and not need as much assistance from public sources,” she said. “When we don't give people the tools to work everybody suffers.”

In the meantime, Perhot noted that Catholic Charities Boston, as a part of a network of community organizations statewide, will continue to strive to provide safe and welcoming spaces for migrants.

“We try our best to meet those needs where we can and if there's something we can't do we try to make sure you can get referred to another place that can,” she said. “We can make a difference, even if it's just one person that gets a job, gets their green card, or can reunite with their family.

“At the end of the day, we're all humans, and when we look at people through the lens of humanity, I believe we can get so much more done and move our commonwealth forward.”

This article originally appeared on The Enterprise: Brockton migrants: Lawmakers seek federal aid from FEMA