Sep 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

On the ground: The scramble to help migrants on Martha's Vineyard

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. — State leaders, local volunteers and attorneys are trying to figure out next steps for the 50 or so asylum seekers who were flown Wednesday — some without their knowledge — to Martha’s Vineyard, a small island with few resources to help them.

Why it matters: Roughly 50 people are packed into the small parish house near St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, after landing at the Martha’s Vineyard airport.

  • “There are limited housing options here. Right now, we are crowding more than 40 people into a place that has never had this many people living in it before,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents Martha’s Vineyard, told Axios.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has claimed responsibility for sending the planes to the island, but nonprofit leaders and some migrants say they came from San Antonio, Texas. A spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Abbott was not involved in sending them.

Zoom out: The ordeal is the latest escalation in the GOP’s standoff with President Biden over immigration policies. Republican governors have moved migrants from border states to so-called sanctuary cities to try to force their Democratic counterparts to grapple with social safety-net issues.

One asylum seeker, Katiuska from Caracas, Venezuela, says she was told the group was going to New York City. She was surprised to learn her plane was landing on Martha’s Vineyard. Others said they believed they were heading to Boston, NPR reports.

  • “They’ve been lied to. This whole journey, they’ve been lied to,” Lisa Belcastro, coordinator of the Harbor Homes winter shelter on the island, told Axios.

What they’re saying: Katiuska’s husband, 35-year-old Pedro Torrealba, said he’ll work any job he can find in the U.S. He said he worked two jobs in Venezuela and still didn’t have enough money to feed his family of four.

  • “All I want is a home, no matter whether we have to pay rent, and a job to move forward,” he told Axios as his wife, his cousin and his cousin’s wife ate breakfast on the front porch, “because I don’t like having anything handed to me.”

The couple spent two months traveling through Central America and the Mexico-U.S. border.

  • They left their children, ages 11 and 7, with family in Venezuela and plan to send money back home, but say being apart from their children is painful.
  • “It’s affecting my wife more than me. She’s crying because she misses them,” he said.

State Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands, described Martha’s Vineyard as “a welcoming community. We’re going to work hard to welcome these folks.”

  • “No one had any idea this was going to happen,” Cyr said.

Zoom in: Volunteers Thursday morning brought food, water, diapers and clothing to the church, which was bustling with families, state legislators, interpreters and other volunteers — a Herculean effort that the community can’t sustain long-term, Belcastro said.

  • Neighbors walked over and delivered cash to a volunteer to give to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, a nonprofit that’s providing food for the asylum seekers.
  • Fernandes, state Rep. Jon Santiago and Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders visited the church Thursday afternoon to meet with organizers.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said attorneys are trying to figure out how to handle appointments that migrants have with federal immigration authorities in the cities they were supposed to go.

  • Asylum seekers go through a rigorous, often years-long process through immigration courts that requires them to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically. Missing an appointment could be detrimental to their case.

What’s next: Volunteers expect to keep the asylum seekers at the church for at least another day before they are taken to another part of Massachusetts, Belcastro says.

  • It’s unclear where their next destination is, but Boston-based organizations have made preparations to take in the migrants.
  • Local restaurants, nonprofits and officials have rallied around the group and offered enough food to last through Saturday, Belcastro says.

Go deeper: ACLU calls for investigation of Operation Lone Star

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