Mass. rolls out new program to help immigrants with legal services
“This administration has recognized that this is a unique population, whose sole focus is obtaining work, and they don’t want to be in shelter,” said Church, who is known for her work with immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard last fall. “I have been an immigration lawyer for many years. And I think the number one question I’ve heard over and over again is, ‘When can I work?’ ”
The program, which kicked off Monday, is part of the state’s new Immigration Assistance Services initiative, a $1.75 million program to serve as many as 800 immigrants living in emergency assistance hotels and shelters.
Six legal providers and 10 case management organizations will serve migrants in 34 shelters statewide, but officials say the program, rolled out under Governor Maura Healey, a onetime civil rights attorney, could expand further.
The effort is a culmination of months of work on the part of the state office, Catholic Charities Boston, and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, or MIRA.
Once the program is off the ground, case managers and legal experts will work to help immigrants sort through documents and navigate the asylum process if it applies to them.
People who seek asylum often spend months in limbo, relying on charity, state resources, or under-the-table jobs to get by.
A work authorization allows new arrivals to bring in income as their cases move through immigration courts, and also creates a way for them to contribute to the tax base, take part in the housing market, and free up space in the shelter system.
The migrants in the shelter system have entered the country under a variety of circumstances. Some walked across the border and are undocumented, while others are in various states of immigration limbo as they pursue asylum claims or try to avoid deportation in court. Some entered the country with visas.
According to Jeffrey Thielman, CEO of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants, many of the 800 immigrants the program will serve have not started the asylum process. But those who do start the process are often able to get a permit to work while their case is pending.
While obtaining work authorizations and moving people through the asylum process is a key tenet of the new program, it also aims to provide good legal advice in an environment where small mistakes can result in months or years of waiting.
State officials say well-meaning volunteers or groups sometimes offer to help put together applications for US citizenship and immigration services on behalf of new arrivals.
But the immigration system is complex, and trained attorneys can give applicants their best chance at a smooth process.
“If you miss a deadline or a check-in, it may come back to haunt you five or ten years later in a way you can’t do anything about,” said Rachel Self, a Martha’s Vineyard immigration attorney who has been assisting the roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants flown to the island by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last year. “It’s completely devastating for people to get to this country, build a life here, finally get their day in court, and realize . . . their case is ruined.”
The program is the latest in a series of efforts to address the migrant influx in the state, which has grappled with an overwhelming need for more shelter space amid a surge of new arrivals in recent months.
Healey took office as the state entered the second calendar year of an extraordinary wave of immigration to the United States, driven by instability and harsh economic conditions in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, and Ukraine.
The state opened the first Family Welcome Center in Allston last month, where staff has been working to connect families with essential supplies, services, and transportation to shelters, including a brand-new one at Joint Base Cape Cod.
Earlier this year, the Healey administration added tens of millions in funding to the emergency shelter system, and directed the infusion of money that is now helping pay for the legal services.
It’s difficult to quantify the number of migrants arriving, and the state does not count them separately from others seeking shelter. But the sheer number of homeless families has exhausted available shelter space statewide, with officials resorting to using empty dormitories and hotel rooms.
Nonprofit leaders hope the legal services program will have trickle-down effects on the migrants in shelters. The program will ideally take the burden off of shelter managers, who can refer legal questions to the experts and instead focus on other tasks, like making sure families enroll their children in local schools and access public benefits.
Leaders say they envision the state partnering with major law firms to help fill other gaps in legal services for immigrants.
The coordination among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, they say, is crucial and is something the Healey administration “in particular knows how to tap into.”
“Obviously, we have more avenues that we can explore about putting more resources into these services,” Church, of the state immigration office, said. “But there is a lot of coordination that just was not happening in the past to meet this very big challenge.”
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