Outside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown on Thursday, several young Venezuelans kicked around soccer balls, smoked cigarettes and interacted with hundreds of Martha’s Vineyard islanders who came out to donate money and supplies, and show their solidarity.
Nearly 50 Venezuelans were flown to the island from Texas under what they said was a false pretense. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for flying the immigrants to Massachusetts. DeSantis, a possible presidential candidate, mobilized state funds to drop them off in a liberal enclave where Barack Obama vacations.
Among them was a young college student who said he had to quit his studies in engineering to flee his country with his two brothers. He wouldn’t provide his name for fear of deportation.
“We left Venezuela because we felt threatened — we were threatened by criminals but also by the government,” he said in Spanish.
Several of the immigrants said they had no idea that they were part of what’s being described as a political game. They said they arrived in the U.S. by land from Venezuela after a perilous three-month journey on foot through Central America and Mexico.
After applying for asylum, they were released in San Antonio, Texas, where they said a woman who identified herself just as “Perla” offered to help.
“She told us, who wants to come: we’re going to give you a free plane ride, and bring you to a sanctuary district,” the student said in Spanish.
“She used us,” he added. “She said we were going to have a place to live, we’d get money and food and even English classes.”
Several of the Venezuelans said even though Perla didn’t show ID, she succeeded in enticing them to go along. They boarded planes in Texas and on Wednesday afternoon, they arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with no one to receive them.
The student said from that moment, they felt like zoo or circus animals.
“Everybody’s taking our pictures and interviewing us,” he said. “That’s not what we were expecting.”
Local officials said they had no warning the Venezuelans were coming. But the community mobilized to support them, and many of the Venezuelans said they’ve felt welcomed by the people of Martha’s Vineyard.
Another immigrant who would not provide her name for fear of deportation said she’s staying at the church with eight relatives.
“When we got here we were worried,” she said, “but now we’re relaxed because the people here have given us so much help. I feel very comfortable here.”
Among the throng of Vineyard residents who came to support the migrants was Tim Wolff of Edgartown, who said he was inspired by how the crisis galvanized the community.
“We’re lucky as hell to live on this island,” Wolff said. “We have such great community spirit, people coming together for total strangers. And this is a true testament to the United States of America — the way it should be.”
But there’s only so much help these locals can give to the immigrants, whose first order of business is to report to federal authorities.
They said they have appointments with asylum officials in various parts of the country, including Florida, Washington, D.C., and California — and they have no idea how they’ll be able to keep the appointments. Yet, now they have legal assistance, and that’s something they say they didn’t have back in Texas.
Ivan Espinoza, of the nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights, said attorneys on Martha’s Vineyard are providing legal help to the immigrants, including assessments of what kind of relief each of them might qualify for.
“But the fact that they’ve been shipped here also adds additional implications, civil or criminal, that we’re assessing right now,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza said lawyers will do their best to help the Venezuelans keep their appointments with immigration officials.