They left Venezuela months ago and traversed Central America on bus, train, and foot. Then, famously, they flew to Martha’s Vineyard on private planes and ferried to the mainland to stay, for a time, on a military base.
Now, the Martha’s Vineyard migrants are achieving some semblance of stability, or at least striving to do so. Forty-seven of them have found housing in Massachusetts — in Lowell, Brockton, Stoughton, Provincetown, and other towns on Cape Cod, according to Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the head of Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Four have even returned to Martha’s Vineyard, where the group first landed on Sept. 14, according to Rachel Self, a lawyer on the island who has assisted the migrants since their arrival. (Two of the 49 migrants have moved to New York.)
Meanwhile, their prospects for remaining in the United States long term have received a boost from a Texas law enforcement official.
Last week, the Bexar County sheriff in San Antonio certified that the migrants originally taken to the Vineyard are legally victims of a crime who are assisting a law enforcement investigation, according to Self, who said she traveled to Texas to complete the certification process.
The sheriff’s office said the case is being investigated “as possible unlawful restraint.” The alleged criminal act stems from an unusual operation in which a Florida woman reportedly lured the migrants onto the flights with false promises about the destination and the benefits the migrants would receive there.
The woman — sources say the sheriff has identified her as Perla Huerta, a former Army counterintelligence agent — was apparently working on behalf of the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has claimed credit for the operation.
The recruitment of the migrants occurred in San Antonio and the sheriff’s office said that only people who were in the area at the time of the alleged deception are considered suspects.
The certifications should enable the migrants to apply for “U visas” with the federal government. The visas are a special designation for victims of certain crimes who provide useful information to investigators, according to a spokesperson for the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
For Self, the certifications serve a dual purpose. First, they will facilitate the sheriff’s ongoing investigation. Second, they should protect the migrants from deportation — especially if they remain in Massachusetts.
Since departing Joint Base Cape Cod during the last week of September and first days of October, the migrants have, for the most part, settled in temporary apartments, homeless shelters, and private homes as guests.
Families traveling with children were the first to leave the base, according to Carlos, a migrant who didn’t want his last name published due to his ongoing immigration proceedings. They received housing through a state program, said Susan Church, a lawyer who represents a family that moved into a state-provided apartment in Lowell.
Three brothers have moved to Provincetown and two siblings as well as two others have returned to Martha’s Vineyard, Self said.
Some men traveling alone and couples without children have received free housing in South Shore homeless shelters, according to Espinoza-Madrigal, whose organization is representing the migrants in a class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and other defendants.
Others are guests in private homes on Cape Cod, according to Espinoza-Madrigal and one of the hosts.
“We’re all dispersed,” one migrant said on condition of anonymity due to ongoing immigration proceedings.
Self said that now that she has the certifications from the Texas sheriff in hand, the migrants can individually apply for U visas with the help of their pro bono immigration attorneys. The process promises to be long, she cautioned.
“It’s not a quick fix,” she said, “and [the outcome] is not guaranteed.”
But the U visa process does provide a plausible path for the migrants to obtain work authorization and, eventually, green cards, Espinoza-Madrigal said.
The application process also serves as a kind of shield against deportation, especially if the migrants remain within the jurisdiction of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico.
That’s because of a legal precedent set just last year. In a lawsuit brought by a man with a pending U visa application, the court of appeals found that the government “abused its discretion” when it moved to reopen proceedings to deport the man. Self said the decision would help protect any Martha’s Vineyard migrants who apply for U visas and reside within the boundaries of the first circuit.
“The perpetrators of these crimes,” she said, referring to the suspects in the sheriff’s investigation, “have ironically ensured that these people will be able to remain in the United States while their cases are pending.” (No one has been charged with a crime in connection with the Martha’s Vineyard flights.)
Espinoza-Madrigal said that even if migrants leave the jurisdiction of the first circuit, a pending U visa application would still confer protection. “It would be extraordinarily unusual for immigration officials to effectuate the removal of somebody that law enforcement has identified as a victim of a crime and a person who is collaborating on a criminal investigation,” he said.
As the flights and the media hubbub around them recede, the migrants are working to build new lives for themselves. Some are working to enroll their children in public schools, Espinoza-Madrigal said. Others are trying to secure authorization to work. Most are looking for long-term housing.
“We expect those individuals to have more opportunities available to them as they continue in their journey, particularly securing immigration protection and relief,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.