The morning after dozens of migrants arrived unannounced last month on Martha’s Vineyard, immigration lawyer Rachel M. Self raced to the island from a citizenship hearing in Lawrence. She was in emergency-response mode. While driving, she tuned into a Zoom conference with fellow immigration lawyers to discuss strategy. From Cape Cod, she hitched a ride on a newspaper delivery boat to get to the Vineyard, and then by noon she had hailed a taxi to get to the Edgartown church where the migrants had spent the night.
“It never even occurred to me not to show up at the church as quickly as I could,” said Self, 44, who happens to live in Edgartown. “It was in my backyard. It was in my area of expertise. It was a language that I spoke, it was something I was very familiar with.”
Once at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Self, who learned Spanish as an exchange student, spent nearly eight hours scanning immigration documents using her cellphone, laptop, and a WiFi hotspot. As other volunteer lawyers made their way to the island, they created spreadsheets listing each migrant, their next immigration appointment, their intended destination, and immediate medical needs. Within days, each migrant had been paired with a lawyer who would represent them for free.
The scramble in those early days — and the continued advocacy since then — exhibited, once again, the force of a spirited team of Massachusetts immigration lawyers, far from the southern border but able to flex their clout and power in the name of their advocacy. Their work put Massachusetts on the national map when it came to fighting Trump immigration policies and, now, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ controversial relocation program.
“We all just basically hit the ground running,” Self said. “We are all cut from the same bolt of cloth.”
Among those who joined Self on the Vineyard early on were some of the state’s most high-profile immigration attorneys: Susan Church, of the Cambridge-based law firm Demissie and Church; Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Boston’s Lawyers for Civil Rights; and Emily Leung, of The Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts.
All three gained reputations as rapid-response advocates during the Donald Trump years, challenging the former president’s zero-tolerance policy at the border that caused the separation of thousands of families, as well as the Muslim travel ban that stopped people from legally entering the country, including through Logan International Airport. The lawyers celebrated several victories, including Church’s success in securing a 2 a.m. federal court restraining order against the Muslim ban — one of the first such decisions in the country.
“There’s definitely an activist, legal culture here in Boston,” Church, 52, said in an interview. “We spent four years doing this exact type of emergency response under the Trump administration, and we became really good at it.”
When the migrants landed on Martha’s Vineyard, there was no hesitation, Church said. “We just had a playbook, and we played it.”
The immigration lawyers’ success in Massachusetts, she said, comes from a combination of empathetic politicians willing to set a tone of immigration advocacy in the state and law firms with the resources and willingness to file and defend federal lawsuits — usually pro bono.
“Our key is that our legal communities are very, very collaborative and very well funded compared to other states,” she said. “We have a very strong legal services network, and we get a lot of help from the big law firms. And I just think it’s a really unique combination.”
When the cameras have gone, and the news cycle has moved on, may we remember how much stronger love is than hate. The community and kindness of the people of #MarthasVineyard are the true examples of American exceptionalism. @LegalAidSCCLS @LCRBOSTON @SusanBChurch11 #probono https://t.co/7iLSF9Igc0 pic.twitter.com/uCY3kn6Qis— Rachel Self (@RachelMSelf1) September 18, 2022
The evening that the migrants arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, Lawyers for Civil Rights began being inundated with phone calls and e-mails “requesting assistance and guidance on how to proceed with the unfolding humanitarian situation,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director.
“People wanted to help but they didn’t know exactly what was the first step,” he said.
Espinoza-Madrigal stayed up until 2 a.m. coordinating a response effort and then set his alarm for 6:45 a.m.
By 7 a.m., he was leading an emergency staff meeting. From there, Espinoza-Madrigal deployed two staff attorneys to the island and convened a series of calls involving activists, government officials, and immigration lawyers, including Self, Church, and Leung.
“It takes a village,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, 42. “There is a very robust ecosystem in the immigration arena that has organically formed in Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard represents the latest iteration of this rapid response mobilization that we’re seeing ... this legal prowess that we are blessed to have in Massachusetts.”
DeSantis took credit for chartering two planes to transport the migrants, most of them from Venezuela, from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, part of a controversial relocation program —- funded by Florida taxpayers with a $12 million budget — to shuttle migrants from border states to liberal communities in a political protest of President Biden’s border policies. Critics have called the program an inhumane political stunt led by a Republican governor eyeing a presidential run.
Ultimately, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit in Boston against DeSantis and others involved in the relocation of the migrants, asking the court to stop the program. In the meantime, the immigration lawyers are exploring all legal options that would allow the migrants to remain in the United States permanently, including visas reserved for victims of crimes, Self said.
Oscar Chacón, executive director of the Chicago-based Alianz Americas, a national immigrant advocacy group, said his organization joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuit because of Espinoza-Madrigal’s track record in such cases.
“I happen to really believe that Ivan is creative and innovative in the way he understands the law — as something that should serve the public interest, and especially the people who are often abused, excluded, or left out, and left behind,” Chacón said in an interview. “And that, I admire. I think that fire is something that we need more of in the reality we are living through now.”
Matt Cameron, an immigration lawyer based in East Boston, did not take part in the Martha’s Vineyard effort but knows the players well.
“I think we have the best immigration bar in the country,” Cameron said, singling out Church. “She’s a hero to many of us. She’s always able to jump in just selflessly, immediately, when these kinds of things happen. She’s always there.”
By the nature of their trade, the group is tight-knit, Cameron said. “I just think, as a collective, immigration lawyers generally are very supportive of one another in a way that other fields aren’t because there’s no need to compete, there’s a huge pool of clients out there,” Cameron said.
Several of the migrants told the Globe of their experiences with the lawyers, whom they had never met but were quick to serve.
“Thanks to the Lord, they have been very good,” said Carlos, who asked that his last name not be used because of his immigration status.
“We are talking with some lawyers right now,” another, Enrique, 36, told the Globe over text message on Sept. 16 after arriving at Joint Base Cape Cod. “What beautiful people you all are.”
Mike Damiano and Samantha J. Gross of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.