The majority of Massachusetts voters believe immigration is “a major problem” or “a crisis” in the state, but they are largely divided on whether migrants should be able to receive care in emergency shelters.

That's according to a new GBH News/CommonWealth Beacon poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group (toplines, crosstabs). Just over 1,000 Massachusetts residents responded to the online survey from March 21-29. During the course of the survey period, Gov. Maura Healey stated that emergency shelters were at capacity and the state announced a new policy requiring them to reapply monthly for these safety-net sites. About half of the families in emergency shelter are migrants.

A pie chart that says "67% of residents believe the migrant situation is a major problem of crisis in Massachusetts"
Matt Welch GBH

About two-thirds of respondents told MassINC Polling Group that “the current migrant situation” is something they are concerned about — with 28% saying they see this as “a crisis,” and another 39% as a “major problem.” Only 5% said it's “not a problem.”

When asked about whether they support Massachusetts' right to shelter law — a 1983 rule that requires the state to provide shelter to families and pregnant women — 79% of poll respondents showed support. That question didn't use the word “migrant.”

However, when the poll asked how residents felt about the state providing emergency shelter specifically to migrants, 47% of respondents said they opposed such aid and 45% said they strongly support or somewhat support it. Eight percent didn’t know or refused to answer. The poll has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Steve Koczela, the president of the MassINC Polling Group, said the findings show a drop in support for migrants in shelters. An October poll showed 55% of respondents somewhat or strongly supported hosting new arrivals in state shelters. He said support shrinking to 45% in the March poll is likely partly due to the fact that the shelter problem is ongoing and immigration is seen by voters as “the top issue,” which wasn't always the case.

“The budgetary impacts are becoming more clear, and people are beginning to see it as a bigger issue, perhaps, than it was when when it first began,” Koczela said.

Older respondents and white respondents were more likely to be concerned about the migrant situation. Only 42% of respondents ages 18 to 29 described the situation as a crisis or a major problem, but that number went up to 80% for people over 60. Seventy-two percent of white individuals described it as a crisis or a major problem, while 60% of Asian respondents, 55% of Black individuals, and 57% of Latinos said the same.

Of the over 7,500 families currently in the state’s maxed out emergency shelter system, about half are new arrivals, or migrants, from countries facing gang violence and economic turmoil. The state Legislature is considering pouring another half a billion into the shelter system.

Robin Nice, chair of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the drop in support for migrants in shelters is alarming. She believes residents who don’t want immigrants in shelters don’t understand the dire circumstances of families heading north.

“If you were to rephrase this question as, 'Would you do anything to keep your kids safe and to keep a roof over their head?' I would imagine that that result will be 100%,” she said. “Shift the conversation and think about what do we need and what do we all deserve as humans, regardless of where we may have been born?”

She said that in the short-term, the state can't have immigrant children sleeping at Logan Airport or on the streets.

“I think we have to recognize that it's an investment in terms of building the economy, building our workforce, building the people who will thrive in the education system, and be able to give back and be able to build and make the state and the country stronger,” she said.

Assistant Minority Leader Peter Durant, a Republican senator from Spencer, said critics of shelter for migrants are concerned that state funds are being used to benefit “citizens who are here in the country legally.”

“Where you’re starting to get that pushback is that people are beginning to understand that this is going to affect them,” he said. ”It’s going to affect how this state's budget operates and how that filters down to things like their property taxes.”

Durant said it’s easy to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis, and he 100% agrees with the word crisis, but the question comes down to fiscal balance.

“How much is enough, and how much is our responsibility?” he asked.

Amy Carnevale, chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said her party supports amending the right-to-shelter law to prioritize residents who have been in the state for some amount of time before becoming eligible for emergency shelter.

She said changing the law is “really designed to shift the policy from what it is currently today, which is kind of an open-door policy that attracts migrants from across the globe to Massachusetts to become eligible … for benefits in Massachusetts, which of course are paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Other immigrant advocates saw hope in new poll numbers. Boston-based attorney Julio Henríquez told GBH News he was heartened by overall support for the state right-to-shelter law. He said the law helped the migrants he represented who were brought to Martha’s Vineyard unexpectedly on flights paid for by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a political ploy.

“The fact that they came to a state that they had no connection to — the ability to find a shelter that that allowed them to to reconstruct their lives, to restart their lives, in Massachusetts was great for them,” he said.

Henríquez said the asylum seekers who arrived in Martha's Vineyard are now thriving and able to get out of state shelters, find jobs, and pay for their own accommodations. He says people who oppose migrants in shelters believe narratives constructed by people like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who he says politicize migration by sending people on buses north with “the precise intent of bombing the shelter system.”

Henríquez maintains that migrants are the reason why the economy isn’t in recession, and that the more immigrants that come, the better the economic boon will be in the long run.

Jennette Barnes contributed to this report.