When about 50 people found themselves stranded last week on Martha’s Vineyard, the island’s nonprofit social services agency called on local churches to help.
“We rallied and did what any decent human being would do if strangers showed up,” local pastor Rev. Charlotte Wright told Sojourners this week.
Two planes chartered by Florida’s government dropped off about 50 Venezuelan migrants on Sept. 14 with no notice to the island’s leaders or Massachusetts state officials, according to a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday. The migrants had recently entered the U.S., the lawsuit states, and are in legal proceedings to determine their immigration status.
Other states, most notably Texas, have transported thousands of migrants to Democratic-leaning cities over the past several months. CBS reported most have gone to Washington, D.C., but about 2,600 were sent to New York and several hundred to Chicago. Churches in all three cities have reportedly welcomed migrants.
But Massachusetts has a divided government, with a Republican governor and a Democratic-controlled legislature. And migrants landing on Martha’s Vineyard claim in the lawsuit that they were deceived into boarding the planes with promises of quicker access to housing and jobs.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed responsibility for the flights, and the state reportedly paid $615,000 to charter them — or $12,300 per passenger.
The migrants thought they were headed for Boston or Washington, D.C., according to the lawsuit. Instead, they claim, they were left stranded on the tarmac without provisions. Migrants frantically called those who had led them to board the planes, but no one answered, the lawsuit states.
One migrant told the Vineyard Gazette, an island newspaper, that he thought the flights were “a ploy to get us to miss our court dates so we get in trouble with the law and they can deport us.”
Island residents set up impromptu housing for the migrants and fed them for two days, until state authorities offered to transport them to a nearby military base where they could access legal representation and other resources.
Attorneys for three of the migrants released a brochure they say the migrants were given as part of the alleged ruse, just before they landed on Martha’s Vineyard. The brochure contains information on refugee assistance programs — which asylum seekers are not eligible for — and a handful of nonprofits on Martha’s Vineyard and nearby Cape Cod, including Federated Church of Martha’s Vineyard.
The attorneys with Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights said Florida officials, not representatives of Massachusetts or its refugee assistance arm, were responsible for producing the brochure.
Wright is the pastor of Federated Church, the single church listed in the brochure. It gets its name from a nearly century-old dual affiliation with both the Congregational Church and American Baptist Churches USA. She had no idea her church was included on the brochure until Sojourners inquired about it, days after the migrants left the island.
“I don’t know how we ended up on that list,” she said.
Wright, who has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for six years, said the church in downtown Edgartown, a town on the east side of the island, helped raise funds for relief work in Ukraine, but otherwise has not run any particular ministry for migrants. She doesn’t speak Spanish, nor do most other residents on the island. Census data show about 800 of Edgartown’s roughly 5,000 residents are foreign-born, but Wright said most immigrants on Martha’s Vineyard are Brazilian.
Regardless, hers was one of three churches that quickly arranged to take in any migrants who showed up.
“It’s the gospel,” Wright said. “They’re hungry, they’re lost, they’re frightened, they’re dumped here on the island, and our role as faith communities is to take care of those people.”
A migrant named Élio told the Vineyard Gazette that the island’s welcome was “a nice surprise.”
“You don’t normally see that, as an immigrant,” he added. “But everyone was so helpful and kind.”
The group of migrants was eventually housed at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, about three blocks from Federated Church.
Episcopal News Service reported that St. Andrew’s welcomed migrants to its parish hall and church basement, and provided restrooms, laundry facilities and a kitchen. The parish also reportedly planned a mass in Spanish for the group.
“We deplore the treatment of human beings as pawns in political disputes,” Rev. Alan Gates, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, wrote in a statement provided to ENS.
“Unannounced relocations and family separations are not humane, nor do they promote constructive immigration policy debate,” Gates said.
“We are grateful to the people of St. Andrew’s and to the entire Martha’s Vineyard community for their compassionate response to people in need, and pledge our support of those efforts.”
The churches and area nonprofits coordinated their efforts based on an existing emergency response plan, Wright said.
“It doesn’t matter if they come in by airplane, or if it was a hurricane and people’s houses were washed away,” Wright added. “Here’s our emergency plan on how to take care of displaced people.”
Donations — of food, water, candy, even toys for migrant children — poured in so quickly that by morning, Edgartown police asked people not to drop off anything else at St. Andrew’s. Wright said that was consistent with the character of the island.
“If you look at the demographics of the island, it is really very much a working-class, year-round population that struggles with housing, that struggles with food insecurity, that struggles with addiction, that struggles with a lot of things,” she said.
A 2019 survey of community health needs found housing and substance abuse were two of the top four problems affecting the health of year-round residents on Martha’s Vineyard. About 8 percent of residents in Dukes County, which includes the island, are food insecure, according to Feeding America.
Wright noted that Federated Church, St. Andrew’s, and St. Augustine Catholic Church, the third church to offer housing for the migrants, were called on to help because they already had facilities and cots used to shelter homeless people each winter. Rumors initially swirled that more planes were coming, so the churches quickly prepared to take in far more immigrants than ultimately arrived.
“We were, in a way, used to taking care of each other,” Wright said of the Martha’s Vineyard community. “So when visitors showed up at our door, it wasn’t a big stretch.”
However, Martha’s Vineyard couldn’t offer jobs because the migrants did not yet have authorization to work in the U.S. The island also lacked mental health resources for the migrants, and legal services they needed to sort out immigration paperwork and get information on hearings the migrants would have to attend. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker offered migrants a ride to Joint Base Cape Cod and pledged to provide such services, as well as interpreters and basic medical care.
The Martha’s Vineyard Times, another island newspaper, reported that all migrants chose to move to the base on Cape Cod. However, multiple migrants told the Times they wished they could stay and felt cared for while on Martha’s Vineyard.
“The island is beautiful and the people are very good,” a migrant named Paolo told the Times.
Wright said it was “very, very sad for us to have to say goodbye. But we knew that this is what they needed in their journey.”