Republicans sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to stoke panic. Instead, residents reacted with kindness

The arrival of 50 migrants galvanised communities on the island while Republican governors ‘manufacture chaos’ and ignore asylum seekers in a broken immigration system, advocates tell Alex Woodward

Friday 16 September 2022 01:14 BST

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida faced international condemnation and scrutiny as the latest GOP governor escalating the party’s widely derided scheme of shipping vulnerable groups of migrants out of their states in cold protest of President Joe Biden.

But the arrival of 50 migrants on Martha’s Vineyard – known as a summer getaway for wealthier Americans – has galvanised communities across the small island off the coast of Massachusetts, providing immediate shelter and relief for a group of people and families deceptively collected into planes out of Texas, more than 2,000 miles away, at taxpayers’ expense.

The group of migrants, including families with small children, are largely from Venezuela, where millions of people have fled political chaos, food and medicine shortages and threats of violence.

State Rep Dylan Fernandes, who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said the island “jumped into action” with beds, meals and a play area for children.

“We are a community that comes together to support immigrants,” he said in a statement. “The governor of one of the biggest states in the nation has been spending time hatching a secret plot to round up [and] ship people – children, families – lying to them about where they’re going just to gain cheap political points on Tucker Carlson and MAGA Twitter. It’s f****** depraved.”

The effort, of course, intends to paint the perceived liberal elitism on the nation’s East Coast as hypocritical, in protest of what the American right characterises as an “open border” that facilities “illegal” immigration into the US, while casting President Biden as responsible for the cruelty on the southern side of the US-Mexico border because he has invited migrants to it.

But advocacy groups and attorneys have criticised the administration not because it allegedly invites migrants into the US but because of a broken, byzantine process to seek aslyum or legal entry, with thousands of people denied from having their cases heard. Republican officials have instead amplified a hardline anti-immigration policy central to former president Donald Trump’s agenda.

Flight trackers show two flights left San Antonio at roughly 8am on Wednesday; one flight stopped in Florida and South Carolina before landing in Martha’s Vineyard, while the other stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina before landing on the Massachusetts island.

A spokesperson for Texas Governor Greg Abbot said his office was not directly involved with coordinating the flights but has had “conversations with Governor DeSantis and his team” about a “busing strategy to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities.”

Governor Abbott “encourages and welcomes all his fellow governors to engage in this effort to secure the border and focus on the failing and illegal efforts” under President Biden that “continue these reckless open border policies,” according to a spokesperson.

On Thursday, his administration bused another group of migrants from Central and South America to the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris at the Naval Observatory in Washington DC.

Texas bused a group of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence in Washington DC on 15 September (EPA)

Earlier this year, his administration sent thousands of migrants to Chicago, New York City and Washington DC. Texas spent more than $12m hiring buses to do so.

Florida lawmakers approved a state budget that included the governor’s $12m plan to “transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”

Arizona also has hired more than 40 buses, at a cost of roughly $3.5m, to send thousands of migrants to Washington.

‘All of a sudden the plane landed here’

Before they were sent to Martha’s Vineyard, the group of migrants was reportedly told by a woman identified as “Perla” that they would arrive in Boston with a promise of expedited work authorisation.

Andres Duarte, a 30-year-old man from Venezuela, told NPR that the woman “offered us help” that “never arrived.”

“We got on the plane with a vision of the future,” he said. “Look, when you have no money and someone offers help, well, it means a lot.”

Wilmer Javier and his cousin, her husband and child travelled from Venezuela through Mexico before they were held in San Antonio for more than two weeks, he told The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

They believed they would be provided help with housing and employment when they were sent to Massachusetts, where the family does not know anyone.

“All of a sudden the plane landed here,” Mr Javier told the newspaper.

A man identified as Leonel told The New York Times that he left Venezuela three months ago, eventually making his way through Mexico before finally crossing the Rio Grande in Texas, where he was detained for several days before his release in San Antonio.

There, the migrants were told they could safely travel to Boston.

Instead, Governor DeSantis likely facilitated their kidnapping, according to immigration attorneys.

“I haven’t slept well in three months,” Leonel told The New York Times. “It’s been three months since I put on a new pair of pants. Or shoes.”

US Rep Bill Keating, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, said in a statement that “history does not look kindly on leaders who treat human beings like cargo, loading them up and sending them a thousand miles away without telling them their destination.”

“Instead of working to find assistance for a group of refugees, he chose to turn them into political pawns,” he said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the effort as “using desperate people … as a political pawn, and it’s horrific and it’s shameful”.

“They’re creating chaos and they’re creating confusion,” she told reporters on Thursday. “That is not how you treat people. It is inhumane.”

'Just plain wrong': White House condemns migrant flight to Martha's Vineyard

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried also has requested the US Department of Justice investigate the governor’s manoeuvre.

“It’s a stunt. It’s designed to divide and distract people from what the actual problems are and the need for actual solutions,” Todd Schulte, president of immigration advocacy and criminal justice organisation, told The Independent.

Republican governors are “manufacturing chaos” by exploiting the nation’s broken immigration system, one in which people fleeing disaster and violence face unsafe restrictions for entering the US and legal barriers to seek asylum, according to Mr Schulte.

“Instead, people survive the collapse of Venezuela [and are] forced to go on a dangerous journey – but there are Fox News cameras who will capture them on tape,” he said. “No one is saying ‘I want to go to the US and I want to go on a dangerous trek to get there’ … People are being forced into these dangerous situations.”

‘It’s a complicated system’

Sending groups of people across the country without any idea where they are going while navigating their asylum claims in immigration courts hundreds of miles away has created a separate legal chaos, as immigration attorneys and legal resources on the mainland assist a much-smaller community without sufficient legal support to connect migrants with their cases.

The group of migrants seeking asylum for humanitarian assistance or protection after fleeing Venezuela were likely released from detention while awaiting their asylum hearings before they were “shipped to a small community where resources have to get to them,” according to Matt Maiona, an immigration attorney in Boston and spokesperson for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“If such a political stunt were to be performed it would certainly be kinder and more humane to go to a city like Boston where these resources are more available,” he told The Independent.

Immigration attorneys and legal services are working to determine the migrants’ status and asylum court venues; if they are based in Texas, immigration attorneys are likely to file motions to change the location closer to the Boston area or their destination in the US, if friends, family or opportunities are expecting them elsewhere.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a continued need for humanitarian aid and assistance,” Mr Maiona said. “Those are the folks who can help not only with getting through the process but also to adjust, get to court, have their case reviewed, because … it’s a complicated system.”

DeSantis says Florida ‘not a sanctuary state’ as he defends Martha’s Vineyard migrant flights

Governor DeSantis and his administration have deflected criticism, casting the flights as a sneering indictment of progressive policies, and arguing that states with Democratic leadership like Massachusetts, New York and California “will better facilitate the care of these individuals” as “sanctuary states” harbouring migrants who entered the country illegally, according to a statement from a spokesperson

The governor told reporters at an event on Thursday that the administration has “worked on innovative ways to be able to protect the state of Florida from the impact of Biden’s border policies.”

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida’s a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures,” he said.

Rachel Self, an immigration attorney in Boston, wrote in a statement that the groups of migrants are “victims of kidnapping” and fraud eligible for nonimmigrant visas to protect them from deportation.

“Using human beings – families and children – as political pawns says far more about Governor DeSantis’s callousness and disregard for human life than it does about the people of Martha’s Vineyard,” she wrote in a statement. “He sent those planes here hoping to expose hypocrisy; he does not believe anyone when they say they care about people like migrants fleeing an oppressive socialist regime in Venezuela, because he himself cannot conceive of caring about them.”

‘They were met with compassion’

Migrants arrived at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where they were welcomed and offered food before spending the night in two shelters in Edgartown

A message to parishioners from St Andrew’s said the church received an “outpouring of offers of food, clothing, money and other necessities for our [brothers] and sisters” sheltered by the church.

“These immigrants were not met with chaos, they were met with compassion,” Rep Fernandes said in a statement.

The Dukes County Emergency Management Association, which is coordinating humanitarian aid with community groups and state and federal agencies, is arranging “longer-term support and resources” for migrants.

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services has also launched a website to collect donations and volunteers.

Sarang Sekhavat, political director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the state’s largest migrant advocacy group, told The Independent that the organisation “is working hard to make sure the migrants that arrive in Massachusetts have their needs met.”

“We are working with advocates and officials to better understand the situation, and we hope to learn more through the hours and days ahead,” she said.

A group of migrants gather outside Martha’s Vineyard’s St Andrews Episcopal Church, which received an ‘outporing’ of support from the island (AP)

“Immigrants and asylum-seekers are people – period,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “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. Martha’s Vineyard’s immediate response shows what Massachusetts looks like at its best: a place that values the lives and well-being of all people.”

The immediate rush of welcome support from the community echoes responses from faith-based organisations and other immigrant advocacy groups along the US-Mexico border and elsewhere providing aid to people seeking asylum.

“We see the American people wanting to step up time and time again,” fulfilling a “chasm” of need to provide comprehensive support to vulnerable migrant populations, rather than “cute stunts” at the expense of taxpayer dollars, Mr Schulte told The Independent.

“The American people get it,” he said. “They’re seeing through this crap.”

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