Massachusetts faces a migrant crisis and a labor shortage — lawmakers are working to see if there’s a creative solution to both

The Massachusetts State House at night. Photo by J. Graham Pearsall/BU News Service

By Clara Cho

Boston University News Service

When the Rev. Myrlande DesRosiers, a Haitian native, visited America for the first time as a young teenager, she decided she wanted to stay.

With hopes of escaping political turmoil in Haiti around 1987, she was adopted by her godparents in New York, obtaining a green card soon after. The life-changing decision to pursue her education in the states eventually brought her to Massachusetts, where she embarked on her college journey.

Now the director of the Everett Haitian Community, an organization that serves immigrants and marginalized communities, she dedicates her time to assisting immigrants find opportunities and resources. Her story is one of the many that epitomizes the aspirations of countless immigrants who come to Massachusetts, seeking a better life for themselves, their families and others.

DesRosiers believes that Massachusetts hosts a significant concentration of Haitian people for many reasons — one being the strong network of assistance and belonging.

“I look at the state of Massachusetts as more welcoming in the midst of so much anti-immigrant narrative that’s going on out there,” DesRosiers said. “Massachusetts is a place where there are a great number of Haitian counterparts, where they feel that they could have a sense of connection and support.” 

Massachusetts continues to see an influx of migrants fleeing from violence and economic turmoil from countries such as Haiti and Venezuela. The state is an attractive place for immigrants due to many other reasons, such as the Right to Shelter Act.

This act defines a “resident” as “any person in the Commonwealth, even if they didn’t intend on staying permanently.” Under these terms, U.S. citizens qualify with documentation and noncitizens qualify if they are “lawfully admitted for permanent residence or otherwise permanently residing under color of law in the U.S.”

As a result, the state’s shelter system is overwhelmed with thousands of migrants, searching for a safer environment. There are more than 7,000 families living in state-funded shelters, more than 80 percent higher than a year ago.

Simultaneously, Massachusetts is confronted with a severe labor shortage that affects various sectors, including health care, tech and the food industry. There are currently more than 22,000 migrants in the state and 240,000 open job positions nationally. Factors for this shortage include an aging population and declining birth rates.

Gov. Maura Healey announced at the end of October that Massachusetts would not be able to accommodate any more families by adding additional emergency shelter units, capping the the number of families in the state’s strained emergency shelter system. A Superior Court judge denied a request to put a temporary hold on the Healey administration’s plan on Nov. 1. 

“For months now, we have been expanding shelter capacity at an unsustainable rate to meet rising demand,” Healey said. “Despite the heroic work of public officials, shelter providers and the National Guard, we have reached a point where we can no longer safely or responsibly expand.”

Lawmakers in Massachusetts recognize that work authorizations are part of the larger solution to the migrant crisis: It would fill the labor shortage in the state while giving migrants an opportunity to make a living in the states.

DesRosiers highlights the importance of work permits.

“Access to work permits is really key to two things — number one: to help the economy better and to also fill the shortage of workers, especially after COVID,” DesRosiers said.

Matthew Lee, a partner of Tocci & Lee, LLC, a Cape Cod and Boston-based human resource law firm that provides services to global businesses in immigration and employment law, recognizes that the current approach to seeking asylum is ineffective.

“Congress needs to pass laws, immigration and work visa categories that allow people to come in and fill these jobs legally from their home country,” Lee said. “Not through a political asylum claim and coming through the border … that’s the solution.”

Another factor includes Temporary Protected Status, which aids people who cannot return to their countries due to extraordinary conditions. The policy allows a limited time for eligible individuals to apply for protected status, including benefits such as work authorizations and a driver’s license. According to the MIRA Coalition, Massachusetts is home to 17,135 TPS holders, with the number expected to increase as individuals come from several countries.

Due to these twin crises, the Healey administration launched two recent programs to help connect shelter residents with work, a partnership with Commonwealth Corporation Foundation, another with MassHire regional workforce boards. Both programs provide work training and readiness for migrants.

Sarah R. Sherman-Stokes, a professor of immigration law at Boston University, explains how migrants continue to seek work.

“These are people who want to work, they’re hardworking people,” Sherman-Stokes said. “Many of them are working in jobs that they did not work in their home countries because they feel like I want to be able to contribute, I want to be able to make a living for my family, so I will do whatever it takes and often, that is not just one job, but sometimes two or three jobs.”

However, Lee worries that work authorizations may cause more harm than good.

“If we’re giving 6,000 of these folks work authorization, could that help relieve the labor shortage in Massachusetts and across the country? Yeah, absolutely,” said Lee. “The problem is, are you just making the problem worse, like are we gonna get another 6,000 next month, and another 6,000 the month after that?”

There are also some nuances in terms of the labor shortage.

Keith Hylton, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Law Professor at Boston University who concentrates in labor law, explained that under normal circumstances, labor shortages lead to increased wages as employers attempt to attract more workers.

However, when the government introduces migrant workers willing to accept lower wages and overlook workplace regulations, it can lead to American workers being denied the opportunity to earn higher wages — and the erosion of protective labor regulations.

“If you have migrant workers who are filling these positions, at low wages, they’re not asking for the benefit of the regulations, then that might cause the regulations to erode in ways that might affect a lot of people,” Hylton said. “You pick any low-skilled job and chances are it’s something that involves back-breaking work under bad conditions and that’s why Americans aren’t eager to take them.”

These low-skilled jobs, often strenuous and risky, may be filled by migrant workers, who may not demand the same protections as American workers. Popular unskilled jobs include child care, care workers and food service.

At the same time, the state’s labor market is experiencing an unprecedented demand for skilled workers, driven by factors such as the retirement of baby boomers and declining college enrollment rates. A report by MassINC projectsa 10 percent decrease in the number of skilled workers in Massachusetts by 2030, after several decades of steady growth in the workforce, according to Ben Forman, the research director.

DesRosiers debunked a common misconception that Haitian immigrants are uneducated and unskilled.

“There’s a false perception that they’re just illiterate or uneducated, which is so far from the truth,” DesRosiers said. “The last new wave of migrants that have come to the borders are educated engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, etc. all these people, you would not believe, are very well educated.”

Both skilled and unskilled workers ultimately bring benefits and value to the state, bringing a wide collection of experiences together to strengthen the fabric of the state.

“We are all improved by diverse opinions, experiences, cultures and viewpoints, making us better community members, it’s better for our economy, it’s better for our kids to be raised in communities where they’re not with people that all look like them,” Sherman-Stokes said. “I hope that Massachusetts will continue to welcome immigrants and immigrant families because it’s legally and morally the right thing to do.”

This story originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.