When the story of the roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants landing on Martha’s Vineyard broke last week, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal sprung into action. A lawyer and the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, Espinoza-Madrigal convened various Zoom calls for the morning after the migrants were flown to the island by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. He invited activists, government officials, and lawyers, including Cambridge-based attorney Susan Church, to strategize and organize a response.
“I said, ‘people need to get there right now,’” said Church, who invited an immigration attorney who lives on the island, Rachel M. Self, to one of the calls. Espinoza-Madrigal had already dispatched several staff members to the island. “The only way to do this properly is to go there, because how were we going to help the migrants from afar?” said Church.
She knows that from experience. Church is a trial and appellate lawyer who focuses on immigration law and criminal defense. Church has represented migrants from all over the world facing deportation, including victims of rape and violence from Central America and other asylum seekers. Notoriously, she was one of the attorneys who took Trump to court — and won — after the infamous weekend in late January of 2017 when the former president’s travel ban came into effect at Logan Airport.
Since then, Church, Espinoza-Madrigal, and other attorneys and nonprofits have been part of an unofficial but powerful local network of legal first responders — activist lawyers, if you will — who have quickly mobilized to respond to immigration emergencies primarily via pro bono legal representation and litigation. During the crises that quickly became the norm during the Trump years — the zero tolerance policy at the border that caused the separation of thousands of families and his attempts to end temporary protections for Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans, among other anti-immigrant measures — Church, Espinoza-Madrigal and many other local activist lawyers secured several victories, bringing justice to many immigrant families.
That Massachusetts was ready to react so fast to the Venezuelan migrant crisis on Martha’s Vineyard is part of the legacy of trauma that the Trump administration left in the wake of its profoundly xenophobic measures. Trump’s policies inflicted a lot of harm but they also provoked robust legal activity, and much of it was generated in Boston. That legal infrastructure was put to work again after DeSantis’ political stunt. “We’ve gotten pro bono lawyers for all of the Venezuelan migrants,” said Church.
And then some. “We’re not dealing just with [the migrants’] basic legal needs,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “We’re also helping them navigate a complex web of new systems, how to get access to medical care that they need or to future housing arrangements.” A class action suit has been filed on their behalf against DeSantis.
Church, who’s a former chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, said there are several reasons why she believes Massachusetts stands out in this regard. “We have big law firms and also many immigration legal services advocacy organizations. And I never do anything alone,” Church said. When it comes to immigration, it’s a highly collaborative legal ecosystem, she said. Then there’s also AILA’s local chapter, which is very active compared to other chapters, according to Church and other immigration lawyers.
This is not to say that all is well in the local immigration legal space. “It is impressive and compelling that lawyers in the Boston area are able to mobilize in a time of crisis,” said Sarah Sherman-Stokes, a professor of law at Boston University and the associate director of the university’s Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic. “But not all the legal needs of immigrants are met. There are thousands of immigrants facing deportation in Greater Boston and they are facing the same racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant policies that brought those 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.”
Those migrants are doing what they are legally entitled to do, which is to ask for protections in the United States, according to Sherman-Stokes. Other than believe in the lies of Republican politicians driven by ill-intentions, they have done nothing wrong. Sadly, it’s a fact lost on many Americans. But that fundamental right to seek asylum is what the rich network of immigration legal service providers in Greater Boston is ready to defend and fight for.