BOSTON (SHNS) – From an $87 million boost to housing assistance funds to a “streamlined” licensure process for internationally-trained medical doctors, hundreds of immigrant policy advocates lobbied lawmakers on their 2023 priorities Wednesday and received a “toast” from House Speaker Ronald Mariano for a high-profile win in 2022.
Mariano said he had prepared a speech, but he wasn’t going to read it.
Instead, the speaker spent his time at the podium celebrating a law passed over Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto last session, and upheld by voters, that opened up driver’s license eligibility to people regardless of their immigration status.
The bill had been filed in previous sessions and was once on the priority list for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition’s lobby day, but never gained traction before Mariano brought it to the floor for a vote last February. He credited the MIRA Coalition with helping to build support.
Mariano said his initial meeting with MIRA was somewhat tense, but the conversation turned to game-planning — selling the idea in suburban areas as a “public safety issue” — and they delivered.
“I just put the plan together, you guys worked it, and I toast your success,” Mariano told the advocates in Great Hall.
Gov. Maura Healey also touted the driver’s license law and told the crowd, which included a number of lawmakers, that “nothing happens without the work of the Legislature.”
Referring to the House and Senate’s override of Baker’s veto, Mariano said it can be “good to take on the governor once in a while,” but that he doesn’t expect to “have those battles this time” with Healey in the corner office.
As the speaker reflected back on rolling the driver’s license bill over the finish line in 2022, he also foreshadowed an unspecified future policy victory.
“I wanted to just say thank you to all of you, and hopefully I’ll be back here next year. We’ll celebrate something new,” Mariano said.
Mariano also featured prominently in a MIRA press release issued later on Wednesday, in which he said that he’s “confident that we can do even more to make the Commonwealth a more welcoming place for immigrants from all over the world.”
Possibilities abound for what that new thing could be, and MIRA was looking ahead toward its legislative wish list.
The coalition’s menu of priorities includes proposals to require language interpretation and translation by certain state agencies (S 1990 / H 3084), open up MassHealth coverage to Bay Staters younger than 21 “who are otherwise eligible, regardless of immigration status” (H 1237 / S 740), and “create a streamlined pathway to full licensure” for qualified physicians who were trained internationally (S 1402 / H 2224).
MIRA said the licensure bill would utilize internationally-trained doctors as “an untapped health care resource” to “address acute physician shortages.”
The group’s lobbying packets also included a perennially-refiled bill to limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials (S 1510 / H 2288), which supporters have dubbed the “Safe Communities Act.” The Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee last summer gave that bill a late-session favorable report, though it never made it to the House floor.
Other MIRA-supported proposals deal with access to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program (S 856 / H 1312) and broadening in-state tuition eligibility for Massachusetts high school graduates regardless of their immigration status (S 817 / H 1281).
On the budget front, MIRA’s biggest ask is to fund the RAFT line item at $250 million, which would represent an $87 million increase over Healey’s recommendation. It would also mark a $100 million increase over fiscal 2023’s funding level.
“Low-income immigrant tenants are especially vulnerable to evictions, especially in the current housing crisis,” the coalition wrote.
The group called for a $10 million boost to adult basic education funding to support classes for immigrants, including English language education, citing waitlists for those programs; $10 million to “support essential wrap-around services for newly arrived immigrants” within a health and human services line item; and a $3 million appropriation for the Employment Support Services Program administered by the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants.
While the state’s estimated population has ticked downward in the past couple years, there’s a positive growth trend when it comes to international immigration.
Last year, Massachusetts saw an estimated net loss of 57,292 residents through domestic migration, and as Bay Staters left for other parts of the U.S., the state’s population saw a net positive of 43,880 in estimated international migration, UMass Donahue Institute data showed.
The Bay State’s net international immigration rate topped all 49 other states last year, according to the Donahue Institute, and Massachusetts came in fifth place nationwide in net international immigrants, behind California, Florida, Texas, and New York.
“We know how important immigrants are to our workforce. Let’s hammer that point home,” Mariano said Wednesday. “Let’s make everyone aware of the fact that you’re contributing to the economy. You’re the folks that are going to work every day.”
The 2020 U.S. Census prompted the decennial redistricting process in the Legislature when lawmakers redrew the boundaries of political maps around the state. Mariano highlighted that work as something that “in my mind will never be talked about enough.”
“We created 13 new seats that have minority majorities. The class that came in this year is the most diverse class I’ve seen, and I’ve been here a long time,” said the speaker, who took office in 1991.
Healey posed the big question to immigrant advocates: “And you probably want to know what’s ahead, right? What are we going to do for you?”
Responding to her own rhetorical quiz, the governor referenced extended nutrition assistance funding, which is contained in the supplemental budget bill she signed later in the day, and proposals to “grow housing around this state.”
“All of these things, just the basics, the foundations, that will help families get to where they need to go,” Healey said.