BOSTON (SHNS) – A month after Russia invaded Ukraine as millions fled that eastern European nation, the Legislature set aside $10 million to help resettlement agencies around Massachusetts prepare for the expected influx of refugees.
The midyear budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker at the start of April directed the Office for Refugees and Immigrants to use up to three-quarters of the money for direct assistance to refugees, including securing immigration status, and a quarter for administrative costs. But so far, the funding has not yet been released to the organizations that contract with the U.S. State Department to do this work, and there has been some disagreement between the state and resettlement agencies over how the money can be used.
“We’re in a conversation now with the Mass. Office of Refugees to clarify legislative intent and client need,” said Jeff Thielman, CEO of International Institute of New England, which works with refugees and other immigrants in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The dispute centers around whether agencies like IINE can use the new funding to support immigrants and refugees arriving from countries that aren’t Ukraine, such as Haiti, Afghanistan and South America. Thielman said it’s the hope of IINE and other groups that the money can be distributed proportionally based on the volume of refugees arriving from different parts of the world. “What they all have in common is that they are fleeing conflict and want to restart their lives,” Thielman said.
A large portion of the assistance goes to pay rent in a high-cost state like Massachusetts, according to Thielman. IINE has helped resettle 500 Afghans in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and has about 240 Haitian entrants enrolled in services in its Boston and Lowell offices. He said he’s heard of 150 or more refugees from Ukraine arriving, mostly in the western part of the state.
The reasons for the confusion are unclear. The law states that the $10 million shall be used “for services for refugees and immigrants including, but not limited to, Ukrainian refugees and immigrants.” It also states that the funding shall be made available through June 30, 2023, but that is another point Thielman said resettlement groups are hoping to “make more explicit.”
Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester is working on an amendment to the annual state budget to clarify the Legislature’s intent. The Senate plans to consider its budget bill beginning on Tuesday, May 24. “I think everyone has the right intentions. We’re just working to get all aligned and on the same page,” Thielman said.