In the dimly-lit lobby of a Lexington hotel, Alejandra huddles on a couch with her two young daughters and waits.
She tries not to think about the nights she spent with them over the last three months, sleeping on the streets of a seedy town in Guatemala. Or in the inhospitable jungle of the Darién Gap. Or on a moving freight train rattling through cartel territory in Mexico, praying they wouldn’t be stopped.
What awaits her family, she can’t be sure. Alejandra, who asked us not to use her real name, has an immigration court date on Nov. 19 that will determine whether her application for asylum can move forward.
“I haven’t moved an inch,” she said in an interview with the Observer. “They brought us here, but we don’t know this place. I haven’t left the hotel. We just don’t have the money to leave.”
Families passing time in the hotel lobby. Credit: Lauren Feeney
For now, she watches soberly as her children – now recovering from their fever and malnutrition – get up and wander the small foyer, wondering how much longer they will be here.
Alejandra’s family is one of over 30 that are currently being housed at two hotels in Lexington. Many of them have been in the country for two weeks or so, maybe less. Most have little money, food, or clothing to their name. Few speak English. And all of them are in legal limbo, preventing them from finding work or housing on their own.
“It’s a horrible feeling, being in a country without money and not being able to work for it,” she said. “Right now, we’re relying on the generosity of others – but we want to work for our living. I know it’s against the law to work without papers, but work is what we’re all here for.”
Some migrants, like Alejandra and her family, made the difficult journey north in search of economic opportunity. As Venezuelan refugees, they faced discrimination elsewhere in Latin America, where she said they are stigmatized as criminals and struggle to find work. Other families staying at the two hotels fled places like Ecuador and Haiti, where gang violence has skyrocketed, in fear for their lives.
Lisbeth, who also asked not to use her real name, fled Venezuela for Ecuador after the father of her children was paralyzed in an attempted mugging. In Quito, she found that the situation there was not much better.
“As a mother, your heart aches for your children,” she said.
As the influx of migrants into the country continues to grow, and while immigration courts buckle under the weight of over 2 million pending cases, states must grapple with the challenge of housing thousands of new arrivals. Massachusetts, the only state in the country with a statewide “right-to-shelter” law, has seen its fragile shelter system stretched to the limit. Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency in August, activating the Massachusetts National Guard to help run overflow shelters – including the two in Lexington – by organizing food, medical care, and other basic needs.
The state’s resources, however, are spread thin. Last week, Healey announced that the shelter system had reached capacity, and that future families would be placed on a waitlist.
“This wave of migrants that’s hitting Massachusetts in the last six months is a pretty new thing,” said Bruce Neumann, president of the Lexington Refugee Assistance Program, or LexRAP. “There’s been a stream of refugees and asylum seekers coming in for years and years, but most of them [in Massachusetts] were not the ones coming over the southern border,” he said. “It’s part of the reason that the governor’s pulling her hair out. It’s a game-changer in terms of the need for structural support.”
LexRAP has become part of an “ad-hoc coordinating group,” as he put it, working to help support the migrants in town. It hasn’t been easy. Neumann said that, early on, advocates had only been able to get information from a National Guard member stationed at the hotel. The service member told him that the only way they knew how many migrants were there was “going room by room,” and asking them their names and countries of origin.
“Is this something that’s happened before? I’d say no,” said Steve Stulck, LexRAP’s vice president. “The community as a whole, the state, everyone’s trying to figure it out. It’s all improvisation.”
Since the first migrants arrived in town on Oct. 20, a coalition has grown, including several local churches, a synagogue, and the Lexington Community Coalition. They say that the energetic response, from organizations and residents alike, has been encouraging.
“We don’t want to separate into little bubbles of, ‘I’ll do this and you do that,’” said Rev. Anne Mason, a minister at the First Parish Unitarian church, which is part of the group. “We want to find ways to build relationships between cultural communities within Lexington, to build us up as a stronger town that really respects and values the different identities of all the members.”
The impromptu coalition has several initiatives in mind. The group is soliciting donations for warm winter clothing, especially since many of the migrants come from tropical climates. They are also trying to put together a pool of drivers to help migrants go places like medical and legal appointments or grocery shopping. The group is also looking into supplying food that may be more palatable than the National Guard’s catering – which is “not necessarily to the taste of folks” from Latin America.
“In these really dark times, it’s very affirming to feel like we can work together to do something of value,” Mason said.
Despite the uncertainty about their future, Alejandra is thankful for the fact that she and her children now have a safe place to sleep – fleeting as it might be. “Nobody guarantees you that you’ll even make it to the U.S.,” she said. “So many things we had to live through to get here.”
“The journey scars you,” she said. “Psychologically, it really affects you. Thank God that we’re here.”