‘I came to this little island’: Immigrant land in political drama

A few days ago, Ardenis Nazareth, who had just arrived from Venezuela, was standing in the McDonald’s parking lot across the street from the San Antonio sanctuary, considering his next move.

After a month-long trek in seven countries, he finally reached the United States. It’s time to remove the worst moments from his mind – when he’s mugged at gunpoint, when they’re walking through a lawless jungle, people fall exhausted and die beside him, when he’s helpless Grande watched as his friend was engulfed by the rough waters of Rio, just before touching American soil in Texas.

Mr. Nazareth now has one goal in mind: earn money to support his two young daughters.

Just then, a well-dressed woman calling herself Pera handed him and about 30 other immigrant gift cards from fast food restaurants, which they gladly accepted. Then she made a tantalizing offer: a free flight to a “sanctuary,” where, he recalls, someone helped them get to their feet. This place is called Massachusetts.

Mr. Nazareth asked, is it close to New York? She assured him that if that was where he wished to settle, then the trip could continue. However, he was surprised when he found himself on Martha’s Vineyard, a small picturesque resort in the Atlantic Ocean. “I thought I was coming to Boston,” he said. “I ended up on this little island.”

He has also been embroiled in an escalating political drama this week, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sending two busloads of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington , Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dispatched two immigration planes to Martha’s Vineyard. Republican governors in border states have sent thousands of immigrants to New York and Washington, arguing that Democratic enclaves whose leaders support more liberal immigration policies should share the burden of caring for them. This tactic created chaos in a city facing unexpected arrivals and changed the trajectory of the lives of individuals like Mr. Nazareth.

Mr. Nazareth recalled that the woman he met at McDonald’s made the same offer table by table. Before long, Mr. Nazareth and seven other Venezuelans climbed into a van driven by the woman and headed to an airport hotel. More Venezuelans checked in over the next few days, until about 50 were on a chartered flight on Wednesday to take them to Martha’s Vineyard.

Venezuelans have been fleeing their country amid widespread deprivation due to political and economic turmoil. Nearly seven million Venezuelans, more than one-fifth of the population, constitute the largest international displacement in the history of the hemisphere. Unlike Central American and Mexican immigrants who have long been in large numbers to the U.S., Venezuelans are a relatively recent phenomenon, often without family or friends to host them.

During the first nine months of the fiscal year, U.S. Border Patrol encountered 110,467 Venezuelans along the southern border, compared with 47,408 for the entire 2021 fiscal year. They are now the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States.

Tens of thousands have made the treacherous overland route along the Darien Canyon on the Colombia-Panama border.

“I left my country to support my family,” said Mr. Nazareth, a 34-year-old construction worker. He said he had been trying to make a living in Peru and Chile since leaving his home country 18 months ago. But he can’t make ends meet and there are rumors among his friends that Venezuelans are trying to get into the US, where job opportunities are plentiful.

“I decided I would do anything to feed my daughters,” he said.

More than 100 Venezuelans set off together, he said. He said they lived on unripe mangoes, green bananas and iguanas as they ran out of food while traversing the jungle. He said the thugs took most of the money he had with him, about $300.

After being harassed by Mexican officials demanding bribes, he and his team arrived in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across from Texas, where they intend to surrender to U.S. border authorities, he said. The last stop on their trip was the Rio Grande.

As they started wading across the river, ropes tied around their waists, the current got bigger and bigger, and the water soon reached their jaws. Mr. Nazareth’s travel companion, 22-year-old Cesar, slipped away and was later found dead.

On Thursday, Mr. Nazareth thanked him and his brethren for the warm reception they received on Martha’s Vineyard. “They were very nice to us,” he said.

“We got food, clothing, all our needs were met. I love Massachusetts!”

His plan: “I want to start working as soon as possible.”

Carlos Guanaguanay, 25, said he and two friends were walking down the aisle of a supermarket near the San Antonio shelter a few days ago when a woman approached them.

“She asked what we were doing here,” he recalls. “We said we were looking for work.” Three days later, they took a bus from the La Quinta hotel with other Venezuelans and boarded a flight to Massachusetts.

“We’re starving and sleeping rough, but we’re here,” said Mr. Guanaguane, a motorcycle mechanic.

He has a 4-year-old daughter and a wife back home. “I want to work, that’s what I want right now,” he said. “If I could do it here, I’d stay on the island.”

Thanks to a strong tourism industry, the island’s population has grown from around 20,000 year-round to around 150,000 in summer. With this shift, jobs in the off-season plummeted. Immigrants arrive just after the peak season and one of the worst shortages of affordable housing in the island’s history.

The church they live in is the only homeless shelter on the island. St. Andrew’s is located in a quiet corner of Edgartown, away from the main street where summer tourists enjoy dripping ice cream and oysters.

The two buildings in the parish spanned a narrow one-way street and were crowded Thursday with police cars, immigration lawyers, translators, news cameras and dozens of volunteers. Islanders stopped throughout the day to donate food, clothing and shoes.

Just behind the parish, a group of Brazilian laborers, a large immigrant workforce on the island, was renovating a two-story house.

“We’re meeting their needs for food and shelter, and we’re definitely going to give them a lot of love,” said Lisa Belcastro, manager of the island’s only homeless shelter. “They need to leave the island. Their immigration appointments are not here.”

Ms Bel Castro said they would move elsewhere, but when was still the question.

A man named Luis traveled from Lara state in northern Venezuela with nine family members, including his wife, brother and cousins, he said before arriving in San Antonio and boarding a flight to Massachusetts traveled through seven countries.

Louis, who did not want to give his last name for safety reasons, said that after three days in San Antonio, his family met a blond woman on the street who she said was Pera. The woman told them she was affiliated with a foundation that helped transport refugees to sanctuary cities and could book them flights to Massachusetts, he said. One caveat: they can’t take pictures.

Migrants were shocked when the pilot announced they were about to land on Martha’s Vineyard, and Lewis said, “This is the first time we’ve heard of it.” When he reached the island, he burst into tears.

Like other migrants, his family has documents from border authorities informing them to report to an immigration office within 15 days, and the man said he feared his family would be tricked into flying to the island and then deported.

Venezuelan migrants surrender to border officials after entering the U.S. and then apply for asylum. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with their home country, they are generally allowed to stay rather than face accelerated deportation, as many immigrants from Mexico and Central America do.

Once at their destination, immigrants can stay in the U.S. for months or even years, awaiting the outcome of their asylum cases and allowing them to work while they seek asylum. But they must comply with instructions to appear in court or report to immigration authorities or risk jeopardizing their case.

Back in San Antonio, Luis Amador Castillo, 34, recalled crossing the road with his friend Francisco to a McDonald’s near the shelter.

A woman hands them bottles of water and a gift card from the restaurant. Are you interested in free hotel nights and free flights to Massachusetts? she asked with a smile.

Castillo recalled that the woman told them that someone was providing you with food, shelter and was ready to help you. Francisco embraced the idea.

Castillo said he politely declined because he planned to stay in San Antonio for the time being and then go to Houston to get a job.

He remembered that the name of the place she mentioned sounded funny at first. “She said it was Massa’s stuff,” Castillo recalled Thursday, standing outside a shelter run by the city.

Xavier Lopez, 20, and his girlfriend Maria Perez, 21, a few steps away from him, said they regretted missing the free flight. The pair left Venezuela at the end of May with their 2-year-old son Santiago.

“We don’t have the money to go anywhere. We’re going to stay here until we figure out how to find transportation,” Mr. Lopez said. “If I knew someone was offering a getaway flight to Miami, that would be ideal for us.”

Jordan reporting from Los Angeles, and Remy Martin From Edgartown, MA. Will Sennott contributed reporting from Edgartown, and Edgar Sandoval from San Antonio.

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