Immigration debate exposes divisions among Mass. Democrats

Gov. Maura Healey speaks to the Joint Ways and Means Committee during the initial hearing on her fiscal 2025 budget proposal on Feb. 7, 2024. (Sam Doran/SHNS)
Gov. Maura Healey speaks to the Joint Ways and Means Committee during the initial hearing on her fiscal 2025 budget proposal on Feb. 7, 2024. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

Entangled in a shelter crisis that is devouring state funds and shows no signs of abating, Beacon Hill's top three Democrats issued a rare joint plea Wednesday morning for Congress to pass an immigration reform deal that was shot down later in the day — including by Massachusetts' two senators.

"We are therefore calling on the U.S. Senate to pass the proposed bipartisan national security bill and the U.S. House to take up a version of this bill as soon as possible," Gov. Maura Healey, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a joint statement Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Senate's $118 billion border security and foreign aid bill, backed by President Joe Biden, called for some of the most significant changes in U.S. immigration and border security in decades, including overhauling the asylum system and granting the Department of Homeland Security the ability to temporarily shut down the U.S.-Mexico border.

Senators voted 49-50 Wednesday afternoon to block the bill. Most of the no votes were Senate Republicans, after former President Donald Trump opposed the deal and Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said it would be "dead on arrival" if it reached his chamber. But a small band of progressives joined the Republicans in blocking the bill, including Massachusetts Democrats Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.

"For too long, going back decades, the immigration system has been broken," Biden said in a statement Sunday imploring senators to advance the measure. "It’s time to fix it. That’s why over two months ago I instructed members of my administration to work with a bipartisan group of senators to – finally – seriously address the issue."

On the state level, top Democrats Healey, Mariano and Spilka said in their plea to Congress that they have worked to ensure that migrant families arriving in Massachusetts and seeking to settle here "have a safe place to sleep at night" and that cities and towns have resources to manage the influx of migrants.

"We have also been clear regarding the need for federal support, and we have for months been calling on Congress to pass immigration reform after decades of inaction that have led us directly to this point," they wrote.

Healey was vocal about her frustration with the federal response to the migrant crisis during a budget hearing on Wednesday.

"It's really frustrating to me, as I know it's frustrating to so many, because there was a plan. There was a path," she said, about two hours before the Senate vote on the border security reforms. "I talk to other governors, Republican and Democrat, there's a simple solution that can make this migrant crisis go away."

Though the governor has in the past called for immigration reform, her endorsement of the bill on Wednesday seemed to go a step further as she discussed closing the border.

"It was negotiated over the last several weeks, in fact, months. Before Congress is an opportunity clear as day that works for red states and blue states and every state in this country and it would have done a few things — it would have closed down the border, it would have tightened up and reformed our broken immigration system, it would have provided permits for work that many of us states and employers need," she said at the hearing.

Healey focused most of her blame on federal Republicans, though later that day four Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined Republicans in blocking the bill. Members of both parties crossed the aisle to cast their votes, as four Republicans voted to advance the measure.

"$118 billion that could have gone to help states like Massachusetts who've been footing the bill, because of the comments of one individual a week and a half ago," Healey said Wednesday, referring to former President Donald Trump, "everybody walked away — everybody on one particular side of the aisle walked away. I've called the White House. I've called Congress. I've called our delegation. If anyone has a way to get through to Republicans in Congress to stop playing politics and move on for the betterment of this country, we can solve this issue today."

In addition to Markey and Warren, California Sen. Aleix Padilla, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Sanders voted with Republicans to block the measure.

"Comprehensive immigration reform requires compromise, and I am ready to do that, but Republicans and Donald Trump clearly will not even when they say they will," Markey said in a statement released after the vote. "We need meaningful pathways to settlement and citizenship, full and fair processing of protection claims, and safeguards for our DREAMers. But in this package, Republicans instead demanded and secured provisions that are contrary to American values, eviscerating due process protections for countless people seeking a better life in the United States, expanding the use of inhumane detention for asylum seekers, and funneling scores of new arrivals into rushed legal proceedings that cannot adequately or fairly assess their claims. Republicans cynically walked away when Donald Trump admitted he preferred to campaign on a broken immigration system as a political issue. I voted no because I am not only against Donald Trump, but also against hateful Trump policies."

He said he would continue to fight with Healey's administration to get more funding for Massachusetts to provide services for new arrivals.

While the bill they favor has drawn criticism from progressives, Healey, Mariano and Spilka also focused their ire on Republicans in the joint statement released on Wednesday morning before the vote.

"It is shameful for Speaker [Mike] Johnson and House Republicans to declare this much-needed legislation 'dead on arrival' when families need help, states are straining under the cost of increased services, and the majority of Americans have expressed a desire to pass immigration reform," they wrote. "This agreement includes provisions that would bolster our state's ability to manage this situation. The proposal would make our border more secure, make funding available to reimburse states for some of the costs associated with supporting new arrivals, and expedite the process to obtain a work permit."

The left-leaning Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition was among those who vocally opposed the immigration reform deal.

"This bill is inhumane and un-American. Rather than prioritizing humane immigration reform, the Senate and President Biden want to gut it by making it easier to shut the border to individuals and families fleeing political violence. Immigration reform needs to include a functioning asylum system for those seeking protection, and a pathway to legal status for DREAMers and other long-term members of our communities," executive director Elizabeth Sweet said in a statement.

With the border deal blocked, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer put to a vote another version of the bill that excludes the border security measures and would just send foreign aid. A vote on that alternative is expected later on Wednesday.

Of the $118 billion bill, $20.23 billion was originally earmarked for border security, with other funds going to support Ukraine, Israel and other foreign entities embroiled in wars, according to Reuters reporting.

It also included only $1.4 billion to be disbursed between the states and local governments to handle the influx of immigrants — with Massachusetts alone needing more than that amount over the next year and a half, according to the governor's estimates.

Healey's comments at the hearing were in response to questioning from lawmakers about spending on the migrant crisis.

As of last week, the state had spent a total $325 million on its emergency housing assistance program — which has strained under an influx of new immigrants to the point where Healey imposed a cap on the number of families the state could house, essentially ending a decades-old right-to-shelter law. By the end of the fiscal year, total costs are estimated to approach $1 billion, with another $915 million next year.

Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston asked how he can respond to constituents who have long been clamoring for public housing improvements and are now seeing the state pour hundreds of millions of dollars into shelter arrangements for new arrivals.

"Quite frankly, with what happened at Melnea Cass, it has brought a lot of attention to the question around who gets housing," Holmes said, referring to a community center in Roxbury that is suspending programming this winter and spring so it can be used as an emergency overflow shelter, drawing criticism from some city residents.

Holmes said addressing deferred maintenance in public housing would cost $1.2 billion, "almost exactly what we're going to spend this year, a billion dollars, for migrants."

"We've been trying to get people and housing authorities better lights and stoves and walls painted. We've been looking for a billion dollars for almost a decade," he said. "How am I supposed to go back to the neighborhood where there's $112 million to try to deal with some of this local housing stuff, where we can spend a billion for folks who haven't been living in these housing conditions for years and years."

Healey responded to Holmes' questions saying her administration has "leaned pretty hard... into public housing." She pointed to a grant announcement she made last month to support the production and preservation of over 1,900 housing units across the state, including several in Boston.

The Fiscal Alliance Foundation, a right-leaning advocacy organization, plans to release a new statewide poll on Thursday of likely Massachusetts primary voters' opinions on a range of issues, including the migrant crisis.



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