For Bris Marcellus, the path to Boston was not straightforward. Economic reasons pushed him to flee his home country of Haiti to Brazil. But in Brazil racism made him flee again.
“So I decided to come to the United States … for a better life,” Marcellus told Boston Public Radio through a translator on Tuesday. From Brazil he traveled through South America, eventually reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. He arrived in Boston in 2022.
Marcellus is just one of thousands of Haitian migrants who have arrived in Massachusetts over the past two years. Massachusetts is home to 80,000 Haitians — the third largest Haitian population in the United States — and over half of that population is estimated to live in the Boston area.
Over the past year the number of families living in state-funded shelters, hotels, dormitories and emergency facilities across the state has more than doubled. In response, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency this month, asking the federal government to provide funding and expedite the work authorization permit process. Attorney General Andrea Campbell also called on the federal government to speed up the process to get migrants like Marcellus working and out of the shelter system.
After submitting an application for asylum with help from the International Institute of New England, Marcellus is still waiting.
“I'm hopeful that I can actually be able to get my paper to actually work and go to school … and learn many professions so I can actually have my family,” said Marcellus, who has a wife and two children. He said he and his wife are young and eager to work. And while thankful for the assistance he’s received so far, Marcellus said he does not want to depend on government help long term.
“We would like the paperwork to be processed fast so that we can work in the country and contribute,” he said.
While the immediate influx of people is overwhelming cities and towns throughout Massachusetts, this is a scene the state has handled before, said Jeffrey Thielman, the president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, which assisted Marcellus in his asylum application.
Some 6,700 Irish immigrants arrived in Boston in one week in 1907.
“100 plus years later, they seem to be doing fine and we seem to be doing fine,” said Thielman. "We depend on immigration to grow our economy, to grow our culture, to make our city and our community a much better place."
Thielman acknowledged that the initial influx of migrants does come with a level of chaos, and he was vague on where migrants would live once they leave shelters, even as the state is experiencing a housing crisis.
“You'd be surprised. People will find places to live,” he said.
“You have to kind of look at it as a momentary crisis. No doubt about it,” he said. Town leaders must decide how to house, feed and educate people. “But once you kind of settle in and figure out and get a system in place, it'll work.”
The International Institute offers a broad range of services for recent migrants to prepare them for leaving shelters, including English language education classes, case management, workforce skills training, job placement and immigration legal services.
Focusing on providing services and creating a pathway to work is missing in current immigration policy, said Thielman. “It's been border, border, border,” he said.
Focusing on a “humanitarian welcome” can be a way to ease the transition — for both municipalities and migrants — while bringing in workers to fill Massachusetts’ labor shortage.