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‘At first they were surprised, just like us.’ Martha’s Vineyard responds to surprise arrival of planeloads of migrants.

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

EDGARTOWN — Venezuelan migrants filtered in and out of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here Thursday morning as a dozen local volunteers prepared to serve breakfast.

On the menu: cereal, breakfast sandwiches, grapefruit, and coffee.

Most of the migrants, but not all, are young men in shorts and baseball caps — dressed for the warm weather they left Wednesday on planes dispatched by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Eduardo, a 25-year-old undocumented migrant from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, set out almost three months ago, he said. Eventually, he reached San Antonio, where he stayed in the “San Pedro 7000 shelter” for a week and a half, but authorities were going to expelling them, until, he said, he received word that he could go to Boston.

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“And so, we decided to accept it to see if there were more job opportunities there [we could get] quickly and all because here we want to work quickly,” he said in Spanish.

The migrants were put on a plane, believing they were headed for Boston.

“At first they said it was to Boston,” he said. But “during the trip, the captain of the plane said the name [of] here — of the island.”

When they arrived, vans came to pick them up and took them to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

“At first they were surprised, just like us,” Eduardo said. “But as soon as we arrived, about 15 or 20 minutes later they adapted just like us, they began to make a list and called the local police and they have been very supportive. We hadn’t eaten anything, they gave us food, they offered us to sleep, rest. They tested us for COVID. And they’ve been supporting us a lot, really a lot.”

Mass. Governor Charlie Baker, confirmed that state officials are working on a temporary housing solution for the migrants, potentially on Cape Cod.

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“On behalf of the Commonwealth, I thank everyone on the ground who quickly came together to provide assistance on the Vineyard,” Baker said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “The Baker-Polito Administration is exploring setting up temporary shelter and humanitarian services at Joint Base Cape Cod and will share additional information as soon as it becomes available.”

Earlier Thursday on the Vineyard, state Representative Dylan Fernandes praised the community for helping the new arrivals.

“We are a community that welcomes immigrants and that helps one another, and you see that here today embodied on Martha’s Vineyard,” Fernandes, who represents the island, said outside St. Andrew’s Thursday morning before a meeting of community leaders.

There are nearly 50 migrants in total, one of whom is believed to be 4 years old, Fernandes said.

The community is trying to make its response on the island more durable, Fernandes said, creating a system to ensure everyone is fed and housed temporarily.

“When you look at the limited housing options on Martha’s Vineyard, as I’m sure many of the folks here are aware, it’s likely we’re going to need an off-island location, but all that is being explored,” he said.

By late afternoon Thursday, a “roomful of immigration lawyers” were working through every migrant’s case one at a time. There were many more on Zoom, Fernandes said.

DeSantis on Thursday defended sending the migrants to the Vineyard in remarks to reporters during a briefing at Northwest Florida State College.

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“Every community in America should be sharing in the burdens. It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states,” he said. Other states “don’t like it as much when you get just a small, small, small amount compared to what these folks have dealt with in Texas and in other states.”

Florida’s message, DeSantis said, is that it’s not “a sanctuary state.”

“Now what would be the best is for Biden to do his damn job and secure the border,” he said.

A DeSantis spokeswoman said in a statement the two planes that arrived in Martha’s Vineyard were part of the state’s $12 million “relocation program” to take undocumented migrants to destinations such as Massachusetts, New York, and California.

During a White House briefing Thursday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre strongly condemned DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott for their roles in dropping the migrants off on the Vineyard and near Vice President Kamala Harris’ home in Washington, D.C.

“The children Governor Abbott abandoned [on] Martha’s Vineyard, the children that Governor DeSantis abandoned as well, deserve better.” Jean-Pierre said.

Susan Church, a prominent immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, said a team of attorneys in Massachusetts is working with advocacy groups including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice to interview the migrants and determine whether they’d be eligible for victims of crimes visas, based on reports they were coaxed into getting on a plane under the pretext that their paperwork would be expedited.

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

Martina Thornton, manager of Dukes County Emergency Management, said there were a few families among the group of migrants, but most were men in their 20s and 30s.

“They were in general good condition, decent health, decent spirit,’’ Thornton said, adding that she did not talk with any herself because they only speak Spanish. Interpreters were used to bridge the language gap, she said.

Thornton said a Zoom meeting has been scheduled for emergency management officials from the island along with people from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to discuss the next step for the immigrants.

“What’s going to happen next is going to be determined by the [Zoom] call,’’ she said. “So I really don’t have anything about what’s going to happen now.”

Lisa Belcastro, the director of the Winter Homes homeless shelter on the island, who is leading response efforts, said Thursday she received a call that the migrants were arriving as they walked off two planes at the airport. Officials had about 20 minutes’ notice, Belcastro said.

Many of the migrants want to leave the island as soon as possible, she said.

“None of them wanted to come to Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve never heard of Martha’s Vineyard. This was a political move,” she said. “Not one person has asked for a handout; they have asked to work.”

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A national GOP push to send migrants to blue states was on the party’s radar as recently as last year, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz touted his “Stop the Surge Act” to establish new ports of entry in deeply Democratic parts of New England. The act hasn’t passed.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday condemned the abrupt transfer of the migrants to the Vineyard.

“Exploiting vulnerable people for political stunts is repulsive and cruel,” Warren tweeted. “Massachusetts is fully capable of handling asylum seekers, and I’ll keep working with local, state, and federal partners to ensure we have the necessary resources to care for people with dignity.”

In Boston, some city councilors took to Twitter to condemn the action.

“It’s imperative we provide the humanitarian support these individuals deserve,” tweeted Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. “The cruelty of anti-immigrant policies and talking points is often the entire point. MA has an opportunity to model what a humane response looks like and I hope we seize it.”

Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune wrote, “This has been an issue for MONTHS & MONTHS. ...Migrants have been showing up in our ERs in need of shelter. It’s a CRISIS.”

Councilor Kendra Lara tweeted: “On days like today, I think of my mother’s dangerous journey across the Mexican border and I can’t imagine how difficult it was to make that decision for herself and her children. Imagine this was the outcome?”

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, issued a statement Thursday morning blasting the “cruel and immoral” treatment of the migrants who were sent to the Vineyard.

“Immigrants and asylum-seekers are people—period,” Rose said. “It is cruel and immoral that some governors are involuntarily flying and busing people and families to other states, based on their perceived immigration status.”

Rose’s words were echoed Thursday by Congressman Bill Keating, a Democrat who represents the Cape and Islands, during an interview on CNN.

“They reported to me that these people got off the plane, men, women, and children from Venezuela, as they told me,” Keating told the network. “And they had a map or instructions in their hand where they would get housing and jobs. And it was a vacant parking lot, the destination.”

A spokesperson for the office of Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, said the office “has been in touch with state and local partners to offer support and resources as needed.”

Geoff Diehl, the Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial nominee, blamed the Biden administration for what he called its failure to address the migrant crisis at the southern border.

“I applaud the people of Martha’s Vineyard who instantly sprang into action to address this situation as it unfolded,” Diehl said in a statement. “I also lament the fact that a motivating factor in Florida’s decision to relocate immigrants here is that Massachusetts has become a ‘sanctuary state,’ making it a natural destination.”

Material from the Associated Press and from earlier Globe coverage was used in this report. Andrea Patiño Contreras of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This is developing story and will be updated.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross. Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Randy Vazquez can be reached at randy.vazquez @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RandyVmedia and on Instagram at @RandyVazquezMedia.