BEFORE HE FLED to Boston from the chaos and violence engulfing Haiti, Johnny L. was a physician. While waiting for his US work permit and learning English at Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Boston, Johnny’s been eager to get to work, at any job he can find—and fortunately, he recently landed a $26-an-hour full-time housekeeping job at a Boston hotel, while he builds up his English skills and credentials in hopes of someday practicing medicine again in this country.
After getting help finding daycare for her infant daughter, Julienne, another Haitian refugee, enrolled in job training and vocational English training at JVS Boston and within weeks found a flexible, family-friendly job packaging food for a catering company. It pays $17 an hour, with benefits, helping Julienne contribute to the household budget for the extended family that has taken in Julienne and her daughter.
These are just two of the countless examples of refugees from Haiti arriving in Greater Boston who are ready and eager to get to work, in jobs that employers are desperately trying to fill.
But there’s an enormous problem facing these immigrants and the employers who want to hire them: Backlogs of six months, or longer, in getting requests for the necessary Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) approved by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services. EADs are what empower refugees and asylum seekers to become productive, taxpaying workers while their applications for citizenship proceed.
At Boston’s Immigrant Families Services Institute (IFSI-USA), a multi-service agency and JVS Boston partner that works to center the voice of immigrants and expedite their successful integration into the social and economic fabric of the US with justice and dignity, staff are currently working with no fewer than 15 Haitian nationals who have been waiting for more than a full year to get their requests for EADs approved.
The challenges faced by immigrants waiting for work authorization are multifaceted and deeply impactful. These individuals often find themselves in a frustrating limbo, caught between the desire to contribute to their families and community and the bureaucratic hurdles that stand in their way. Stuck for months in temporary housing, these immigrants are not only being denied the opportunity to become productive contributors to their new society, they are experiencing stress, anxiety, and other major mental health impacts.
Gov. Maura Healey, Attorney General Andrea Campbell, and our state’s congressional delegation have all urged the Biden administration to do all it can to streamline and expedite this process and eliminate the backlog.
This isn’t just the right and humane thing to do—it’s also the smart thing for Massachusetts to do economically. Cutting EAD-approval red tape will protect our competitive edge nationally and globally and help fill the tens of thousands of jobs going unfilled across the Commonwealth.
As Gov. Healey recently noted when the Commonwealth opened a short-term welcome center for refugees at Joint Base Cape Cod, “We had employers begging to send up a bus to get people, to bring them back to the Cape to work, to put them to work.’’ Not just on Cape Cod, but throughout the state, the governor noted, there are a “lot of employers here who want to put them to work.”
Massachusetts is particularly well-positioned to welcome refugees and asylum seekers from Haiti and connect them with jobs. Boston ranks second only to Miami as the top US destination for Haitian immigrants. Communities like Boston, Brockton, Malden, Randolph, and Somerville are home to large, well-established Haitian-American communities. Just like Irish-American, Italian-American, and Vietnamese-American immigrant hubs in decades and centuries past, these Haitian-American communities are powerful engines of welcome, assimilation, and networking for today’s arriving Haitian immigrants.
Along with the many arriving Haitians who want and are willing to take whatever first job they can get to start down the path of self-sufficiency, JVS Boston also works with many Haitians who are working, through English education and training, to apply the professional credentials and expertise they earned in Haiti to high-quality, high-skills jobs here.
These include people like Erica, now working as a universal banker in Lowell; Rose, a registered nurse in Haiti who’s working as a certified nursing assistant at a Longwood Medical Area hospital while working towards RN status here; and Catheline, a former health educator and youth program manager in Haiti moving up the ranks as a patient care technician at another Boston hospital.
At a recent graduation ceremony for JVS Boston’s food service training program, Gerard, who had waited more than two years to get his Employment Authorization Documents, spoke movingly of his journey from Haiti and how proud and happy he is to have landed a job at a local Shake Shack with managers and teammates he loves working with.
“We leave our country because of the war, leave our family, leave everything behind out of necessity,” Gerard reminded us. “Here at JVS, you see the will of students learning and the will to fix the world, the will to find success.”
Gerard, Johnny, Julienne, and so many other Haitians arriving in Boston embody that same courage and same burning desire to work, to contribute, to become taxpayers and someday homeowners and community leaders. The best thing we can do for them—and for our Massachusetts economy and workforce crisis—is to help them get their employment authorizations as fast as we possibly can.
Geralde Gabeau is founder and executive director of the Immigrant Families Services Institute (IFSI-USA). Kira Khazatsky is president and CEO of JVS Boston.