The number of migrants authorized to work in the Massachusetts emergency shelter system has more than tripled to 2,713, state officials said this week.
The number jumped from 813 in mid-December — following a series of government-run work authorization clinics intended to streamline the process and cut back on wait times.
Gov. Maura Healey touted the increase in a written statement, describing it as a sign of success of the federal and state commitment to moving along work applications of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
“We are proud that our efforts to assist new arrivals with getting their work authorizations are showing success, particularly the clinic we hosted with the Biden-Harris Administration,” Healey said. “Work authorizations are critical for helping families support themselves and move into more stable housing, as well as addressing our workforce needs.”
The clinics run by the Healey administration and the Department of Homeland Security were launched in November to speed up the process that sometimes took more than four months.
Part of the hold-up was waiting for immigration paperwork to be sent through the mail, scheduling fingerprinting appointments and the financial burden of saving for a $495 application fee. Clinics helped speed up the process by waiving fees, providing attorneys to help with paperwork and carrying out fingerprinting on site.
An additional asset was having U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, who typically review the applications, onsite. They were able to resolve any issues in applications that would have been rejected through mail, advocates say.
Jeff Thielman, president of International Institute of New England that works with migrants, says that process has now been cut down to just a few weeks. "It was a huge success. I would hope we can replicate it, keep it going,” he said.
Among the beneficiaries was Dieulene Pluviose, 37, who attended a clinic in Reading and says the process took ten days for her to get work authorization.
Originally from Haiti, Pluviose arrived in Massachusetts in August with her partner and five-year-old son, and now lives in a state-sponsored hotel in Danvers. She is currently on humanitarian parole, which allows people to live in the U.S. legally and temporarily, as she applies for asylum.
Pluviose says people from shelters all over the state attended the clinic. "The process was very smooth and we were guided throughout the whole thing. They [immigration officials] took our pictures, their fingerprints and all that,” she said through an interpreter.
There has been one small snafu — her name was misspelled on her work document — a problem that is being corrected and should be resolved next week. Pluviose says can't wait to earn money — she has three other children in Haiti to support and needs to save for housing.
“I would love to see myself in a job and in the process of getting an apartment,'' she said. "Making an income is important because I have a lot of responsibilities to take care of."
The pressure to approve work authorizations continues amid an influx of immigrants to Massachusetts. There are nearly 1,400 families that have applied for emergency shelter since Nov. 10, when the system reached its capacity of 7,500. Some families have left to find more permanent housing, and the number of families on the waitlist for shelter is about 391, state data shows.
The work authorization data came in a report to the legislature, a required part of the $3.1 billion supplemental budget Healey signed last year, which included funds to emergency shelters.
There is no shortage of open jobs — there are over 228,500 job postings in Massachusetts, as of November 2023, many of which are in healthcare and retail industries. But hurdles like affording housing, applying online, transportation to jobs and language barriers still exist.
Now that more immigrants are getting work permits, the next challenge is connecting them to employers, immigrant advocates say. Funding is still an issue.
Thielman, president of International Institute of New England, said hiring caseworkers could help migrants figure out transportation from home to work, negotiate rent and find communities where they want to live.
“We need funding to hire people to help our clients get jobs,'' he said. "We don't have enough staff to help people get jobs.”
Jill Seeber, executive director of the Mabel Center for Immigrant Justice that worked at the clinics, says some people are helping each other when they can.
Seeber told GBH News about a man who is helping provide Haitian food at one of the shelters. "Once some people there were able to get work authorization, he hired them,'' she said. "He kind of expanded what he was able to provide."