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Immigration and legal advocacy groups map out plans to help Venezuelan migrants on Martha’s Vineyard

A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown.Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/Associated Press

As local officials and volunteers on Martha’s Vineyard scrambled to provide accommodations for the dozens of Venezuelan migrants who arrived on the island Wednesday afternoon, advocacy groups across the state were also planning how best to provide support.

Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, said staff from his organization are exploring all legal options to help the migrants and looking into whether Florida Governor Ron DeSantis broke any laws by sending them to Massachusetts.

“It’s appalling for the Florida governor to use vulnerable immigrants as pawns to make a political point,” Sellstrom said. “Our top priority is ensuring that individuals and families who are on Martha’s Vineyard get the support that they need. Here in Massachusetts, we are treating these individuals and families with the dignity and respect they deserve — as opposed to how the Florida governor and others have been treating them.”

Sellstrom said they are also looking at the bigger picture and examining legal questions the situation has raised, specifically reports that the migrants were coaxed into getting on a plane under the pretext that their immigration paperwork would be expedited.

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“This situation raises a host of very troubling legal issues,” Sellstrom said. “The fact that the inducement to travel was apparently made by a state government official in some capacity is highly troubling and raises questions of whether or not that constitutes illegal state interference in federal immigration matters.”

Martha’s Vineyard responds to surprise arrival of planeloads of migrants

Susan Church, a prominent immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, said a team of immigration lawyers in Massachusetts is working with advocacy groups, including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, to interview the migrants and determine whether they could be eligible for visas as victims of crimes.

“They were duped in to getting on to the plane,” said Church, the former chair of the New England Chapter of American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is akin to kidnapping.”

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“The reality is that they thought they were going to send them to the Northeast and somehow the Northeast would be crying sadly over the influx of these people,” she added. “But instead the response has been incredibly kind.”

Sarang Sekhavat, political director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said advocacy groups are working to make sure the migrants get what they need.

”While we are frustrated to see politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis play politics with the health and safety of migrants, the MIRA Coalition is working hard to make sure the migrants that arrive in Massachusetts have their needs met,” Sekhavat said in a statement. “We are working with advocates and officials to better understand the situation, and we hope to learn more through the hours and days ahead.”

Keith Harvey, the regional director for the Northeast at the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that helps migrants and refugees, said it’s important the Venezuelan migrants are given support as they navigate the legal system.

”We just hope the Vineyard community will be welcoming to these families and individuals, and they set up a process where they can begin to get representation and start their process of gaining asylum,” Harvey said.

But the responsibility of providing support to the migrants, and others who may follow, should not fall on a single community, he said.

”It’s beyond Martha’s Vineyard,” Harvey said. “It’s the state’s responsibility for something like this.”

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Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.