Less than 24 hours after 50 migrants from Venezuela arrived unexpectedly on Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday afternoon, apparently lured onto a plane in Florida with false promises of work and aid, state officials are meeting this morning to discuss a plan for how to help them.
The migrants’ arrival on the island is reportedly part of a larger tactic by Republican-led states to transport immigrants to so-called liberal states as part of a protest over the Biden administration’s border policies.
The group of 50, including children, spent the night at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edgartown and were provided dinner and breakfast. Officials on the island had no notice of their arrival and had to scramble to find things like toothbrushes, food, and places to sleep.
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According to one member of the group, Eduardo, 25, all but one of the approximately 50 migrants are from Venezuela; the remaining traveler, he said, is from Peru.
The travelers seemed uncertain of where they were and why they had been transported to Martha's Vineyard.
Andres Duarte, a 30-year-old from Venezuela, said he had recently crossed the border into Texas and eventually went to a shelter in San Antonio. A woman who he and other migrants identified only as Perla approached them outside the shelter. They say she arranged for some of them to stay at a hotel, offered them food, then got them on a plane.
“She offered us help,” he said through a Spanish-language interpreter. “Help that never arrived. Now we are here. We got on the plane with a vision of the future, of making it.”
“Look,” he said, “when you have no money and someone offers help, well, it means a lot.”
State Rep. Dylan Fernandes says officials are looking for a long-term solution. In the meantime, they are looking for immigration attorneys to help migrants potentially get visas. Fernandes says there has been no coordination from Florida or Texas, states that apparently collaborated to send the migrants to the island, and no forewarning that the planes would be arriving.
The Florida Legislature set aside $12 million dollars to transport migrants out of state.
Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the administration is in touch with local officials.
“At this time, short-term shelter services are being provided by local officials, and the administration will continue to support those efforts,” MacCormack said.
At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, they were provided with two sleeping accommodations: one facility for families and women and children, and a separate facility for single men. Island officials provided them pizzas for dinner.
Local aid groups scrambled to offer help to Martha’s Vineyard.
“This came completely out of the blue,” said Sarang Sekhavat, political director of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The fact that they sent folks to Martha's Vineyard instead of Boston just kind of indicates the idea that they want to send them to these places where receiving organizations just simply aren't ready. To send them to a place that's relatively isolated like this, where these support systems don't exist. ... The cruelty is the point here.”
Massachusetts groups who usually focus on other kinds of work will now hurry to find housing, medical care and food for migrants, Sekhavat said.
“I understand that there's increased pressure placed on the southern border,” Sekhavat said. “But the fact of the matter is that there's infrastructure down there among the nonprofit community to house folks, to provide food, to provide legal assistance. What they're doing by sending folks up without any kind of notice, without any kind of coordination, is they're basically shifting people from where resources are to where resources don't already exist.”
'Their needs are immense'
Lisa Belcastro, a coordinator for the island’s homeless shelter, was assisting in the response. She said the migrant group arrived with very little, so volunteers needed to assess quickly what they needed.
"Everything from beds to food to clothing to toothbrushes, toothpaste, blankets, sheets,” she said.
While some items were on hand, she said, because a winter homeless shelter is run out of St. Andrew's, still they lacked sufficient quantities.
“Their needs are immense right now,” Belcastro said. And she pointed out the limitations of the facilities at the church. “This is definitely a temporary shelter. I mean, we have one shower. So if you do that math, this is not an indefinite situation. So we have a meeting tomorrow, and we're going to discuss what we can do to help them.”
Belcastro added the migrants were each screened for COVID-19 and all of them tested negative.
'Cheap political points'
The New York Times reports that the migrants were transported from San Antonio, Texas, as part of a strategic political program by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Rep. Fernandes said on social media that the migrants were told by the people who put them on planes that they would be given housing and jobs. He said islanders had no notice of their arrival but were coming together as a community to support them.
Island volunteers who speak Spanish, including some high schoolers, helped facilitate the effort to provide the group with food and shelter.
Edgartown police chief Bruce McNamee told CAI that a number of the migrants seemed not to know where they had landed, or how they had been sent here.
On social media, Fernandes called the move by the Florida governor “a secret plot to round up & ship people — children, families — lying to them about where they[’]re going just to gain cheap political points.”