EDGARTOWN — On Wednesday morning, Lisa Belcastro woke up at 4 a.m. to go fishing. After a long day on the water, Belcastro, who runs a homeless shelter on the island, got a call: Two charter planes had just arrived at Martha’s Vineyard airport carrying nearly 50 migrants. Belcastro’s day was about to get a lot longer.
She sprang into action alongside dozens of islanders who were suddenly thrust into a new and startling chapter in the nation’s long-running political war over immigration.
The day was equally long for the migrants. But their ordeal began much earlier, their lengthy journey made under sometime agonizing circumstances before landing in the care of an island community unprepared for their arrival, but unstinting in their response.
Most of the migrants were from Venezuela, had crossed the border into Texas, and were staying at a migrant center in San Antonio. There, several of them said, they met a woman named Mrs. Perla who offered them three months of rent and work, in Boston.
After a few days in a hotel, the group — mostly young men in their 20s and 30s and a few families with children — boarded two planes in San Antonio that hop-scotched up the East Coast, stopping briefly in Florida and North and South Carolina. During those legs of the flight, the migrants said, they were again told their final destination was Boston.
But during the last leg, the captain announced they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard, and the crew handed out booklets that listed Martha’s Vineyard Community Services as a resource. A “Massachusetts Welcomes You” sign appeared on the cover.
“When they brought us here, they left us up in the air,” said a 21-year-old Venezuelan woman who had traversed seven countries, including a harrowing seven-day jungle passage, to reach the US border. “Everything is still up in the air.”
At about 3 Wednesday afternoon, they landed at the airport, 2,000 miles from San Antonio and a world from home. A videographer was there to film what happened next, said state Senator Julian Cyr. The footage was soon posted on Foxnews.com, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took credit for chartering the flight. Soon this wealthy, bucolic island was plunged into the nation’s roiling debate over immigration policy.
DeSantis, who just one month earlier visited neighboring island Nantucket for a political fund-raiser, told reporters that “[e]very community in America should be sharing in the burdens. It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states.”
Democratic politicians fired back, saying DeSantis had used vulnerable migrants to score cheap political points.
But as debate rolled on and TV crews poured in, locals on the Vineyard focused on the pressing issues at hand.
Word of the migrants’ arrival ricocheted around the island. 911 was called. A child needed medical attention. The group was exhausted and hungry, and most of the young men wore light clothing that was ill-suited to the island’s cooling weather. Vans arrived to transport them the 3 miles to the community services center, which quickly went into action.
Janet Constantino, a nurse practitioner and therapist, was at the center when the migrants arrived. The center reached out to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for Spanish translators. She said many of the migrants hadn’t eaten since 6 a.m.
Within 45 minutes, with the help of the high school, “we had everything set up,” Constantino said. The migrants were fed in the center’s parking lot, and tested for COVID.
They were eventually bused to the Harbor Homes winter homeless shelter at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, where Belcanto was waiting. Army green cots were lined up in rows inside the church, and a play area was set up, with hula hoops for the children. Lawyers showed up too, to help expedite immigration paperwork.
”Some people have their passports and papers and [were] supposed to be in the New York immigration office on Wednesday,” she said. “We’re working on it step by step.”
Meanwhile, local residents were doing what they could.
Maria Sanchez Roa, a senior at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, said she was in her room at home Wednesday “ignoring homework” when her mother came in and told her about the arrival of migrants. The community needed translators, so Justine DeOliveira, a Spanish teacher at the high school, recruited students to volunteer at St. Andrew’s Wednesday night.
”I was like, ‘Oh all right.’ Because we don’t have a lot of Spanish-speaking people on the island. It’s mostly Portuguese speakers,” Sanchez Roa said. She arrived at St. Andrew’s with “no idea” what she was supposed to do, so just started talking to people, “to help them along and help them feel more comfortable.”
“In English last year, I read books about people coming through the border and their struggles and stuff,” she said. “It doesn’t really hit you until you build a connection with these people. . . . I’m very grateful I can help.”
At about 5:30, Danny Segal, owner of Edgartown Pizza, got a phone call from the community service center asking for 10 extra-large pizzas, he said. So he did what he always does: offered the organization the same steep discount he gives schools and nonprofits. Tim Dobel brought the coffee. The co-owner of Mocha Mott’s in Vineyard Haven and his daughter, Casey Engley, who is six months’ pregnant, fired up the brewers, filled up a few cartons, and hand-delivered it to St. Andrew’s.
As news traveled throughout the island, local residents began arriving to drop off donations outside the church. Local politicians began to arrive as well. By 7:15, Representative Dylan Fernandes was on a ferry to the island.
“Currently migrants are being dropped off on Martha’s Vineyard by chartered flights from Texas,” he tweeted. “Many don’t know where they are. They say they were told they would be given housing and jobs. Islanders were given no notice but are coming together as a community to support them.”
Most likely they won’t be on Martha’s Vineyard for long.
On Thursday, the state began exploring plans to move the migrants to an Army base on Cape Cod. But that first night on the island was for many the first time they slept well in months.
“The people here were not expecting us. We were a little confused because we were expecting a city and not an island,” said one man, who asked not to be named. “When you arrive at a place where you can finally relax, you are able to relax your mind a bit. You sleep all night. Total relaxation.”
Belcastro said she was glad she was able to welcome the migrants and offer them kindness.
“None of them wanted to come to Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve never heard of Martha’s Vineyard. This was a political move,” Belcastro said. “Not one person has asked for a handout; they have asked to work.”
As things wound down at St. Andrews, the migrants were able to rest easy, for one night at least.
“We had a very peaceful night,” Belcastro said.
Globe correspondent Alexander Thompson and Randy Vazquez and Spencer Buell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @janellenanos. Brittany Bowker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @brittbowker and also on Instagram @brittbowker.