Venezuelan migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard face barriers to legalization

Two months after their arrival on Martha’s Vineyard, local politicians discuss the social and legal obstacles the migrants are facing.

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Bill Ilot/Flickr (2020)

By Helen Sievert , Collegian Correspondent

This past September, the community of Martha’s Vineyard had to spontaneously provide resources for an influx of Venezuelan migrants. The unexpected arrival of migrants has placed a national spotlight on the immigration process and led local leaders in Amherst to reevaluate their own contingency plans.

Two charter planes unexpectedly arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with approximately 50 Venezuelan migrants aboard, requiring the island to quickly provide shelter, food, legal services and other resources to the migrants.

Local authorities had not been notified of this plan. The flights had originated in San Antonio, Texas and made incremental stops along the east coast before landing in Martha’s Vineyard, which caught the migrants off-guard as they were told they were being flown to Boston.

Migrants were taken to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, who also did not expect the arrival of migrants. They quickly coordinated with emergency officials and other leaders of the town to establish a place of shelter and the organization of other resources.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took responsibility for the unexpected arrival in a public statement where he said, “every community in America should be sharing the burdens.” DeSantis justified the transportation of migrants as, “part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrant to sanctuary destination.”

In its 2022-23 Budget Bill, the Florida state legislature allotted $12 million for a program to facilitate the transportation of “unauthorized aliens out of Florida.” DeSantis used this money to fund the relocation of these 50 migrants via two chartered planes to Martha’s Vineyard.

The unexpected arrival of migrants on Martha’s Vineyard triggered a large political response from local officials who expressed their discontent towards DeSantis. State Senator Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands district (where the migrants arrived) said, “No one should be capitalizing on the difficult circumstances that these families are in and contorting that for the purposes of a ‘gotcha’ moment.”

State Rep. Mindy Domb, who represents the 3rd Hampshire district which includes Amherst, said, “In Hampshire County, civic, community and nonprofit leaders met to develop a plan in the event that people were forcibly relocated to our area.”

Domb explained that this preparation for the unexpected arrival of migrants in Hampshire County proved to be beneficial. It was “[suggested] there may have been a sizeable number of people on their way to Hampshire County,” potentially putting the 3rd Hampshire district in the same situation as Martha’s Vineyard. This rumor did not turn out to be true.

However, as Domb noted, the situation started “community conversation and delegation of responsibilities,” which was a “worthwhile exercise. It placed the district, “in a good position should we find ourselves in the same situation as the Martha’s Vineyard community,” Domb said.

The Venezuelan migrants who landed in Martha’s Vineyard may be granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), as long as certain criteria are fulfilled. The Department of Homeland Security designates certain countries, like Venezuela, eligible for TPS based on certain prerequisites. This includes conditions, such as armed conflict, environmental issues, health disasters or other temporary issues, which prevent a safe return to one’s country of origin.

Upon receiving this status, migrants seeking visas, green cards or citizenship may begin the application processes. Another status for which certain migrants can apply for is humanitarian parole. Humanitarian parole is offered to migrants who are involved in a humanitarian issue, to temporarily remain in the U.S.

However, there are contingencies in gaining either TPS or the humanitarian parole. To be eligible for TPS, migrants must have had continuous residence in America since March 8, 2021.

“The challenge with TPS is that people who are not already [in the U.S.] are not eligible,” said Jamie Rowen, professor of political science and legal studies. Rowen is also the director of the Center for Justice, Law and Societies at the University of Massachusetts.

TPS neglects, “people who are here, but came within the most recent year and a half. They are not eligible for either of these legal options. That is really the problem,” Rowen said.

“What are we supposed to do with that group of people that don’t have a clear path to regularization or legalization?” Rowen said.

Rowen offered potential solutions by highlighting the opportunities which may arise from mobilizing of public interest and support for migrants. “To me, the real question for the community is not about getting people legal status, but it’s about providing them with the social and economic support that they would need to live,” Rowen said.

Stephanie Fetta, professor of Latinx studies and director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at UMass placed an emphasis on themes of  “community engagement.”

Fetta said that collaborative initiatives at the grassroots level will make the most impact and ease the process of integrating into a new society, both in terms of legal and societal factors.

“I am grateful to the people of Martha’s Vineyard who moved heaven and earth,” said Cyr. “To care for the asylum seekers who arrived on the small island with dignity, compassion and respect.”

Cyr added that the situation, “reignited our conversations around broader needs [for] new arrivals in the state,” which will be discussed in the upcoming legislative session this winter.

Cyr explained that the recent approval by the Legislature of an, “economic development package…[that] allocated $20 million to support immigrants” was encouraging. The bill sets the tone for the next session. “We will certainly look at ways we can continue to support immigrants arriving in the Commonwealth.”

Helen Sievert can be reached at [email protected]