Immigrant activists protest amendment to housing bill

As the Senate resumes debate on a $1.4 billion housing bond bill, immigrant rights advocates are calling on lawmakers to reject a proposal that will align state public housing requirements with federal standards, excluding several categories of immigrants from the public benefit.

"This is a divisive amendment. It's going to re-traumatize vulnerable populations, including domestic violence victims, Haitian earthquake survivors, crime victims, torture victims, people who would be eligible for a status if only they could access a safe situation," Shannon Erwin, state policy director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, told the News Service as about two dozen activists headed into the capitol to lobby lawmakers.

Amendment 28 was filed by Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who tabled discussion of the housing bond bill (S 1835) last week over objections to a "special favor" amendment that he said would block an affordable housing development in Norwood.

"I don't believe that MIRA's interpretation is accurate," Hedlund told the News Service, specifically disputing that it would bar Haitian earthquake survivors access to state-funded public housing. Hedlund said the legislation, if adopted, would simplify procedures for local housing authorities. He said, "You have one standard for federally subsidized units. You have another standard for state subsidized units."

Erwin disputed Hedlund's interpretation of the federal requirement, saying that some non-citizens are given access under the federal system, "but very few." Erwin said federal housing law leaves out, among others, "Dreamers," young people who were brought to the country as children and are out of compliance with federal immigration law but can apply for immigration status under an Obama administration policy.

"Right now we have 100,000 people around the state that are on waiting lists," said Hedlund, who said in some cases people who broke immigration law receive access to public housing over longtime residents of a community.

The Senate, which did not debate the amendment during debate on the bill last week, is scheduled to meet in formal session Tuesday.

Those opposed to the proposed restrictions gathered on the State House steps Monday morning, and chanted "si se puede," or "yes, we can," as one woman wore a cardboard box shaped like a house with a pitched roof.

"If this amendment passed this would mean that the victim would need to return to the abuser's household," said Gladys Ortiz, of the Waltham-based REACH Beyond Domestic Violence. Erwin said the amendment would bar many documented immigrants from receiving state public housing, and she said it would not be any more palatable if there was an exemption for domestic violence victims.

"The amendment impacts a lot of categories beyond just domestic violence factors. There are dozens of documented immigration statuses, but federally assisted public housing is available to only a very few of them. So this would leave out a whole host of categories of documented immigrants, including not only new visa holders, but [Temporary Protected Status] holders who are survivors of the Haitian earthquake, many other statuses that people may not be as familiar with," said Erwin, who said it would also affect families where members have different immigration statuses.

The rally drew the support of Dan Cullinane, a candidate for the state representative seat formerly held by Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat. "We have victims of the earthquake who came to live here," Cullinane told the News Service.

Hedlund halted debate on the housing bond bill last Thursday, using his right to table the legislation until the next formal session. He said he wanted broader reforms to the state housing law known as 40B that allows developers to appeal for state approval if they are denied local permits and their projects meet certain affordable housing requirements.

Hedlund said he does not hold out much hope for the Senate to adopt his 40B reforms, and said he was not trying to delay passage of the bill by using his ability to table. A bill can be laid on the table three times before Senate leaders consider that a tactic to delay the legislation and force a vote on the issue.

"Let's just say our little scrum around the rostrum Thursday didn't lead me to be optimistic," Hedlund said.

Hedlund said his move to stop debate on the bill Thursday also led him to doubt whether Amendment 28, aligning state public housing requirements with federal requirements, would pass the body.

"Now the way things have unfurled here, I'm not sure," Hedlund said.