Skip to main content

Migrants’ 44-Hour Visit Leaves Indelible Mark on Martha’s Vineyard

After sharing hugs and teary goodbyes with roughly 50 migrants who had arrived unexpectedly by plane on this affluent vacation island, the volunteers who sheltered them at an Episcopal church carried out tables and chairs, packed food onto trucks and folded portable cots.

A familiar quiet had descended by Friday afternoon on the tree-lined downtown block on Martha’s Vineyard, where Jackie Stallings, 56, could not stop thinking about a young Venezuelan — she was 23 but looked 15 — who sat with her in the St. Andrew’s Parish House the night before.

The asylum seeker showed Stallings cell phone video taken during the journey across a remote Central American jungle, pointing out migrants who died along the way.

“It was like she was showing me cat videos but it was actually their journey and what they endured to get here,” said Stallings, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services nonprofit. “There were bodies and moms with babies trying to get through mud that was like clay.”

“The heartbreaking part is seeing these beautiful young ladies become desensitized,” said her husband, Larkin Stallings, 66, an Oak Bluffs bar owner who sits on the nonprofit’s board. “For them, they just flip and show you a picture.”

Stallings cut him off.

“She was like, look, this one died, part of their original party. And he died and this one died. The mud is like to up to here to them,” she said Friday in the shade of the parish house porch, pointing to her thigh. “And you see them, they literally have to lift their legs out the mud. They die because they get stuck.”

During their whirlwind 44-hour visit this week, migrants like the young Venezuelan woman left an indelible mark on their accidental hosts in this isolated enclave known as a summer playground for former US presidents, celebrities and billionaires.

They were flown from Texas on Florida’s dime

The guests, including young children, boarded buses Friday morning around the corner from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

Days of uncertainty on the small island off the coast of Massachusetts and a massive effort by locals to provide for them ended with a new odyssey — a ferry ride and then another bus caravan to temporary housing at Joint Base Cape Cod.

The asylum seekers — most of them from Venezuela — had been flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday under arrangements made by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — part of a series of moves by Republican governors to transport migrants to liberal cities to protest what they describe as the failure of the federal government to secure the southern border.

Martha’s Vineyard had not been expecting them but a small army of activists mobilized to help people who had become pawns in the contentious debate over America’s broken immigration system.

DeSantis’ move was sharply denounced by the White House, Democratic officials and immigration lawyers who vowed legal action on grounds, they said, the migrants were lured north with promises of work, housing and help with immigration papers and ultimately misled about their final destination.

Florida’s governor denied the migrants did not know where they were going. He said they had signed a waiver and had been provided with a packet that included a map of Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s obvious that’s where they were going,” he said, adding that the move was voluntary.


On Thursday night, a group of young male migrants congregated on the narrow street outside the church, just blocks from the glittering upscale shops, restaurants and art galleries on Main Street in Edgartown. One asylum seeker, in his early 20s, ventured down the street to explore at one point. He asked about the price of a hamburger at a fancy eatery. When told it was $26, he noted that was much more than he earned in a month in Venezuela when he could find work.


Juan Ramirez, who is 24 but appears younger, stood outside the hall of the 123-year-old church — where 18 of the men slept on portable cots and inflatable mattresses under donated blankets for two nights. He teared up talking about the family he left behind in Táchira state in western Venezuela when he embarked on his journey in late July with his phone and $400 in cash.


The cash was long gone and his phone stolen by the time Ramirez reached northern Mexico and the border with the United States, he said.

Ramirez and other migrants said they were released by US immigration authorities with an order to return for a hearing. In San Antonio, they were approached by a woman who offered them a plane ride to a shelter in the Northeast where there would be housing, jobs and assistance with immigration papers. The migrants were put up in a hotel until about 50 of them were assembled for the flight to Massachusetts.


On Friday, after the migrants had left Martha’s Vineyard, a volunteer with the Harbor Homes nonprofit, Sean O’Sullivan, disassembled the folding cots that 18 of the male migrants slept on in the parish hall.

“The year round community is very strong because you are kind of isolated here — whether it’s the ferry or the bad weather, you’re stuck here,” he said. “We’re used to helping each other. We’re used to dealing with people in need and we’re super happy — like they enriched us, we’re happy to help them on their journey.”