Live updates: Tracking the migrant crisis in Massachusetts

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Shelters remain at capacity and locals are stepping up to help, even as the flow of migrants fleeing dangerous situations around the world shows no signs of slowing.

A Haitian migrant walks his daughter to school from a shelter in Cambridge. Danielle Parhizkaran/Boston Globe

America’s troubled immigration system and a rapid increase in the number of migrants coming to the U.S. continue to dominate headlines both nationally and in Massachusetts. Since last summer, when Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency, much of the focus in the Bay State has been on its overburdened emergency shelter system and the state’s unique “right-to-shelter” law. 

Massachusetts has guaranteed shelter for families with children and pregnant mothers since 1983. But that law is facing new scrutiny as lawmakers work to find enough funds to keep the shelters running. Overflow sites for waitlisted individuals are now open throughout the state, and the Healey administration is working to move people out of shelters by connecting them with affordable housing options and helping them obtain work permits.

Local officials are keeping up pressure on congress and the Biden administration, but the influx of migrants shows no signs of slowing down as people flee dangerous situations around the world. 

Want to help? Boston.com has an updated list of Massachusetts-based resources and organizations that help migrants in a variety of ways, ranging from providing food and clothing to finding housing. Also, here’s how you can host a migrant in your home.

More information, including past updates, can be found here

A federal judge ruled this week that a lawsuit against the airplane charter company that flew migrants to Martha’s Vineyard at the direction of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 can proceed, but she notably narrowed the scope of the original lawsuit. 

Judge Allison Burroughs dismissed DeSantis himself and other allies as defendants in a 77-page decision. The lawsuit, however, can proceed against Vertol Systems, the charter company hired by Florida to bring the migrants to Massachusetts. 

The lawsuit was filed by Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights and pro bono attorneys on behalf of the migrants in the immediate wake of the flight, which DeSantis took credit for as he ramped up his once-promising campaign to become the Republican nominee for President. 

A group of about 50 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, were flown from Texas to the Vineyard in September 2022. Advocates and some officials have alleged that the migrants were misled when they were “recruited” in the San Antonio area by a person hired by Florida. Some of the migrants said that they were only told they would be flown to Massachusetts and realized that their flight was headed for an island just before landing. The plaintiffs allege that no one on the Vineyard knew the flight was coming aside from a videographer and van drivers hired by DeSantis to meet the plane as it arrived. 

“Unlike ICE agents legitimately enforcing the country’s immigration laws … the Court sees no legitimate purpose for rounding up highly vulnerable individuals on false pretenses and publicly injecting them into a divisive national debate,” Burroughs wrote. “Treating vulnerable individuals like Plaintiffs in this way … is nothing short of extreme, outrageous, uncivilized, intolerable, and stunning.”

But Burroughs concluded that the lawyers representing the migants did not sufficiently connect DeSantis and the defendants other than Vertol to actions that took place in Massachusetts. 

Lawyers for Civil Rights hailed Burroughs’s ruling as a victory because it allows legal claims to proceed against Vertol. 

“[The ruling] sends a crucial message: private companies can — and will — be held accountable for helping rogue state actors violate the rights of vulnerable immigrants through illegal and fraudulent schemes,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said in a release. 

The migrants will continue to pursue their claims against all the defendants in federal court, Lawyers for Civil Rights said. The group plans to amend its lawsuit and argue that DeSantis and the other dismissed defendants should be reinstated. 

Burroughs allowed claims of “civil rights conspiracy” and “civil conspiracy” to proceed against Vertol, paving a “roadmap for further legal proceedings in line with its initial observations and findings,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said. 

The group highlighted Burroughs’s assessment that facts laid out in the lawsuit “support an inference that Vertol and the other Defendants specifically targeted Plaintiffs because they were Latinx immigrants.” This means that Burroughs sees allegations of discrimination as plausible. 

In a statement to The Boston Globe, a spokesperson for DeSantis defended the flights and teased that similar tactics could be used again. Last month, DeSantis said that Haitians fleeing their home due to widespread gang violence could be flown to the Vineyard. 

“As we’ve always stated, the flights were conducted lawfully and authorized by the Florida Legislature. We look forward to Florida’s next illegal immigrant relocation flight, and we are glad to bring national attention to the crisis at the southern border,” the spokesperson, Julia Friedland, said in a statement to the Globe.

The Healey administration announced Monday that families staying in state-run overflow shelters will be required to get recertified monthly in order to continue their stays. To remain eligible for “safety-net” shelters, they will have to document their engagement in case management and rehousing programs. 

The new rules go into effect on May 1. They are the state’s latest attempt to maintain open space within the overflow sites, which were created to provide warm beds for people being waitlisted for the emergency shelter system. That system has been at capacity for months, and overflow shelter sites have been set up by both the state and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay. The recertification requirements will not apply to the overflow shelters being operated by United Way. 

“We have said for months now that our system is at capacity, and we do not have the space, providers or funding to continue expanding,” Emergency Assistance Director Scott Rice said in a statement. “This new certification policy is a responsible step to address the capacity constraints at our safety-net sites. Families will need to demonstrate that they’ve taken action to get on a path toward independence and out of shelter.”

To be recertified, families will be assessed on their participation in “state-provided services to help them move toward independence,” according to officials. This could include enrolling in workforce training programs, applying for work permits, submitting job applications, taking English classes, and actively searching for housing. As long as they can prove that they are taking these steps, families will be able to stay in the shelters. 

The state’s emergency shelter system has been overburdened by an influx of migrants and an ongoing housing affordability crisis. Right now, less than half of the 7,512 families in the system are “new arrivals,” officials said. Additionally, there are about 200 families who have qualified for emergency shelter but were placed on the waitlist. They are staying in state-run overflow sites in places like Roxbury, Cambridge, Quincy, and Revere.

At the State House, lawmakers have been working to agree on legislation that would send hundreds of millions of dollars into the shelter system while potentially adding a maximum stay cutoff for most families. 

All families currently staying in state-run overflow sites will be notified about the new policy, officials said, as will new families going through the intake process. Shelter workers will be directed to help families learn about the changes and take the necessary steps to pass recertification. 

State officials also announced on Monday that a new overflow shelter site will be opening in Chelsea. It will be located in the former Chelsea Soldiers’ Home facility, which is vacant and was slated to be demolished after the state opened the larger Massachusetts Veterans Home at Chelsea. 

The new site will be able to accommodate about 100 families with children or pregnant women who have been deemed eligible for emergency shelter and are currently on the waitlist. 

“Massachusetts has proven that we can take care of veterans and families experiencing homelessness in our state,” Secretary of Veterans Services Jon Santiago said in a statement. “While EOVS formerly operated the building slated for demolition, this project operates independently and will not impact the daily routines or services at the Massachusetts Veterans Home at Chelsea.” 

BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Senate has approved limits on how long homeless families can stay in emergency state shelters as part of an $850 million plan to fund the system at the center of the migrant crisis.

Under the bill approved late Thursday by a vote of 32-8, the state would limit maximum stays to nine months with the possibility of 90 more days for veterans, pregnant women and people who are employed or enrolled in a job training program.

The bill already passed the House, and would provide funding covering the rest of fiscal 2024 and part of 2025. The bill is expected to go to a conference committee before Democratic Gov. Maura Healey signs it.

Currently, there are no limits on the time a family can spend in emergency housing.

Democratic state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who chairs the Senate Ways & Means Committee, called this proposal fiscally responsible and humane. He noted that Massachusetts residents make up more than half the people in the shelters, and said “thousands” would end up on the streets if funding runs out.

“The plan we are considering today in the supplemental budget strikes an appropriate balance,” Rodrigues told lawmakers. “We responsibly ramped down projected program cost over time, placed families on a pathway to exit the shelter system into more stable housing, and put into motion a much larger public conversation on the future direction of the (emergency assistance) shelter program.”

Several lawmakers criticized Congress for failing to pass the latest immigration bill. Republican state Sen. Bruce Tarr also questioned the amount being spent, which means less money for other housing programs.

“It is unfortunate that we and our colleagues in states all across the country are having to deal with the consequences of something that is well beyond our control and solutions to which are well beyond our authority,” Tarr said. “We find ourselves here without the resources, without the authority to solve what is, in essence, a federal problem, struggling with what will necessarily be imperfect solutions.”

The Massachusetts bill also includes money for job training. Its stated goal is to help families successfully exit the program and enter the workforce, while at the same time opening space for families who have been waitlisted as a result of the emergency regulations Healey issued last year.

Those regulations set a cap of 7,500 families participating in the emergency shelter program. Earlier this month, about 700 families were waiting to be enrolled, and that number is expected to grow.

— Michael Casey, Associated Press

The City of Taunton filed a lawsuit against the operators of the former Clarion Hotel on Myles Standish Boulevard recently, alleging that the hotel violated occupancy limits while it was used as a shelter for migrants and that fines have gone unpaid.

Without advance notice, city officials were informed in April 2023 that the hotel would be used to house 18 families, according to a statement from Mayor Shaunna O’Connell. Not long after that, more than a hundred families occupied the hotel, and it ceased operating as a traditional hotel entirely. The conversion to an emergency shelter was complete within a few months, and the building hosts about 445 people at a given time. 

Across Massachusetts, hotels have been tapped to help temporarily house people in the state’s emergency shelter system. As of Thursday, 3,876 of the 7,522 families in the system were staying in hotels as opposed to traditional shelters, according to state data

O’Connell said that she and other city officials discovered that the operators of the hotel had signed a contract with the state to use the building as a shelter for “upwards of 9 years.” The city was “given no advance notice nor an opportunity to express [its] concerns” because this was a  contract between the state and a private business. 

As the hotel filled up, Taunton’s building commission grew worried that the occupancy limits of the guest suites there were being exceeded. The hotel’s management team did not address these concerns, O’Connell said, so the city began issuing daily fines in an effort to force compliance. 

“The hotel owner’s architect eventually provided some documentation that the building may be compliant with elements of life safety despite the increased occupancy numbers,” O’Connell said. 

This stopped the daily fines, but they resumed when the hotel’s management “delayed in applying for a building permit and submitting a code review to alter the occupancy certificate,” according to the mayor. All in all, the hotel was fined $114,600 from May 26 to Sept. 18, 2023. None of those fines have been paid yet, O’Connell said. The hotel has since complied with the building code and submitted the necessary paperwork, and Taunton has stopped issuing fines. 

In her statement, O’Connell listed various ways that the surge in migrants coming to Massachusetts has impacted Taunton. The city “lost” the only hotel available there, which has negatively impacted business travel. O’Connell also cited an increase in emergency calls and a rise in students in public schools. 

The state has reimbursed Taunton with $103,000 in “lost meals/room tax,” O’Connell said.  There is still a need for the “remaining $63,000” to be reimbursed. 

“While we are not unsympathetic to migrants fleeing unstable conditions in other countries, we have limited resources available and many residents in need, including seniors and veterans, who require services and housing. We continue to call upon the federal government to provide assistance to our state and our city,” she said. 

In an interview this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that he could once again arrange for migrants to be flown into Martha’s Vineyard. It was a stunt DeSantis pulled in 2022, as he sought to grow his national profile ahead of a run for the GOP presidential nomination. 

DeSantis specifically said that Haitian migrants landing in the Florida Keys could then be relocated to Massachusetts. Haiti is in the midst of an escalating crisis, as gangs perpetrate violence without repercussions and international leaders work to find an interim prime minister. DeSantis recently activated more law enforcement personnel and National Guard members to patrol Florida waters “in anticipation” of a potential increase in Haitian migrants. 

Although the 2022 operation caught locals on Martha’s Vineyard off guard, they rallied to provide warm beds, food, and other necessities. Now, they are ready to do so again. 

“The first time around, we dealt with them well and treated them as real people, and the Commonwealth took care of them for the balance, and now they’re integrated into society and pursuing their own asylum claims,”  Rev. Chip Seadale, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, told The Boston Globe. “If you send us 1,000 Haitians, we’d be in trouble. But something akin to the same number we had before, we’d mobilize right away as we did before and probably do it even better.”

Lisa Belcastro, who runs a winter homeless shelter on the Vineyard, told the paper that she has already received many messages from people condemning DeSantis’ recent remarks while simultaneously expressing their eagerness to help again if needed. Belcastro said that Vineyard residents would step up again, but that the island does not have the services set up that the migrants would need. 

“He’s sending them here, in a sense, to hurt them and to use people as political pawns,” Belcastro told the Globe. “It’s not to say that everyone on the Vineyard wouldn’t pull together and try to help them until we have to relocate them to where the services are, but if you’re going to relocate people because you can’t service them in your state, the humane thing to do and the moral thing to do is to relocate them to where services are already in place.”

Meanwhile, U.S. representatives Jake Auchincloss and Ayanna Pressley are urging the Biden administration to renew and extend protected status for Haitian migrants. In a letter to  Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, they noted that temporary protection status for Haitians is set to expire on Aug. 1, after being in place for 18 months. 

As gang violence engulfs the Caribbean nation, disease and starvation are also posing imminent dangers. 

“An additional redesignation and extension of the qualifying dates by which someone has to arrive and establish residency is desperately needed, as an increased number of Haitian migrants have fled and continue to flee to the United States,” the letter said, according to the Globe.

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