How Migrants Flown to Martha’s Vineyard Came to Call It Home


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On a sprawling Martha’s Vineyard estate not far from the seashore, Deici Cauro adjusted a baseball cap to keep the burning sun at bay. She was crouching to pull weeds with her bare hands when a familiar voice called out from the other side of the yard.

“Pots!” her employer called, and she motioned for Ms. Cauro to follow her to another garden nearby.

“¿Vamos?” Ms. Cauro replied in Spanish, wondering if they had decided to move.

“Sí, vamos, I guess, whatever that means,” her boss replied, prompting both women to share a hearty laugh.

When Ms. Cauro fled Venezuela last summer, she never imagined that one day she would be working and living on a wealthy island south of Cape Cod, surrounded by boats and mansions of the kind she had seen only in the movies.

It has been nine months since the government of Florida, under the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, chartered two flights from Texas that picked up Ms. Cauro and 48 other newly arrived migrants and dropped them off on Martha’s Vineyard, a liberal enclave that until then had little firsthand experience with the surge in migration on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The political move — repeated this month, when Florida officials arranged two more flights of migrants from Texas, this time bound for California — was an attempt to force Democratic leaders many miles away to deal with a surge in migration that has affected states along the border. The trips left many of the Venezuelans confused and alarmed. Some were told they were headed for Boston or Seattle, where there would be plentiful jobs, assistance and housing.

But neither was the destination; it was Martha’s Vineyard, and it was the end of the busy summer season when vacationers begin retreating home to offices and schools. There were no jobs and no places for them to stay. Volunteers put the new arrivals up at a local church and arranged for transportation.

Within days, most of the migrants were gone, headed for other parts of Massachusetts and places like New York, Washington and Michigan — cities better equipped than a small island to settle people who had arrived with little or nothing of their own.

As it turned out, though, not all of them left.

Ms. Cauro is one of at least four migrants who have quietly stayed behind on the island, forming bonds with a community that opened what doors it could. Ms. Cauro, 25, is working as a landscaper. Her brother, Daniel, 29, and her cousin, Eliud Aguilar, 28, found jobs in painting and roofing.

They first stayed in the homes of Martha’s Vineyard residents who invited them in, and then began earning enough money for a two-bedroom house, with the four of them chipping in $1,000 a month each. They got bicycles to ride around town.

“I did not even know where Martha’s Vineyard was. And now I feel welcomed by everybody here. I’m working, making friends and this is home for me now,” Ms. Cauro said with a wide smile. “This is home now. I don’t want to leave.”

The flights arranged by Florida came as the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona were busing thousands of migrants away from the border, straining support systems in cities like New York, Washington and Chicago.

Many of the 49 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard are still struggling. Some have not yet obtained work permits, and many are still living in shelters, unable to afford permanent housing.

One of them, a 42-year-old man named Wilson, who had fled Venezuela after deserting an armed group there, is living in a shelter in a Boston suburb. He was hoping to open a restaurant or a remodeling business, but for now is working odd jobs and “doing whatever I can,” he said.

“We were 49 migrants, and we have 49 different stories,” he said. “I want to reach the American dream like everyone else.”

The four migrants who managed to stay on the island have also had challenges. Ms. Cauro said she still found it hard to trust strangers after the deeply unsettling sense of being cast adrift by people who she now thinks used her and her relatives as political pawns.

She said it was important to her to pay her own way and not become a burden on the community that welcomed her. Her employer, a woman in her 60s who declined to be named because she was employing someone without a work permit, said Ms. Cauro felt like part of the family.

Ms. Cauro understood enough to nod her head. “We came here to work in any job, no matter how hard. We are just happy to be living here.”

Life in “La Isla,” as the migrants call it, feels a lot like the new life they had imagined. But getting there was a tremendous challenge. Ms. Cauro and her family members, facing an oppressive government and economic collapse in Venezuela, had set out for the United States a month before reaching the border.

Her brother, Daniel, had left behind a wife and two children, Daniela, 8, and Reynaldo, 2. They traversed the Darien Gap, a treacherous strip of jungle that connects South and Central America. In Mexico, the group jumped on La Bestia, a network of cargo trains headed north where many migrants have lost their limbs and even their lives.

When they arrived at the Texas border, Mr. Aguilar recalled seeing people in his group lose their footing and be swept away by the strong current of the Rio Grande. “It was so difficult seeing them sink to the bottom of the river,” Mr. Aguilar said.

The group finally crossed into the United States near Eagle Pass, Texas, and found refuge at a shelter in San Antonio. But after the limit of five nights, they found themselves stranded outside, tired and hungry. “We were desperate,” Mr. Cauro said.

After several days, in early September, they met a woman named Perla, who handed them McDonald’s gift cards and offered them a hotel and free flights to “Washington or Oregon,” where the woman said they would find work and housing, the migrants recalled.

But 15 minutes before their plane was to land, they said, something felt wrong. Mr. Cauro and his group were handed red folders with a cover that proclaimed, “Massachusetts Welcomes You.”

Ms. Cauro and her brother said they were in shock and felt “like cattle” when they were dropped off near a high school field in Edgartown, one of the six towns that make up Martha’s Vineyard, and were told to knock on doors. “Some people were passing out, having panic attacks,” Mr. Cauro recalled.

Father Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church was out of town when the flights landed, but immediately got on the phone when he heard what had happened. “If they don’t have anywhere to stay, let’s just put them up in the church,” he told his colleagues.

The fire department and Salvation Army volunteers set up cots in the church, and local residents poured in with clothing, food and money. Father Seadale said one woman rode her bike to the church and handed over a check for $10,000.

There was generosity from all over the country, he said, pointing to a wall at the church covered in letters from supporters. One envelope addressed to “The Church They Brought The Immigrents to” managed to make it to the right address. An enclosed letter read, “Thank you for treating the migrants as people.”

“The community came together,” Father Seadale said. Whatever was the intention of Mr. DeSantis, he said, “he raised a level of awareness and consciousness. To this day, whenever I go and I say that I’m from Martha’s Vineyard, people congratulate me for the way we handled it.”

Not everyone welcomed the new arrivals with open arms.

One longtime resident, Angela Cywinski, said the situation put the community in a tough position, trying to accommodate people who could not legally be hired at restaurants or hotels. Most of the immigrant workers on the island, she said, have put in the necessary time and money to obtain legal status. Ms. Cywinski said she knows migrants from Brazil who have spent up to $60,000 and waited years to obtain visas to live legally on the island. “It is not fair when people jump the line,” she said.

Ms. Cauro and others had to find work under the table until their work permits are approved, something that usually takes several months as part of the asylum process.

Rachel Self, an immigration lawyer who has worked with the migrants, said the Venezuelans are working hard and paying their own way.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ms. Self arrived at the house where the Venezuelans were living, on a quiet road. They were playing salsa music and cooking caldo de res, a red-meat soup common in Venezuela. Over dinner, they shared laughs and made plans to visit the home of the “abogada” — the lawyer, as they have come to know her — and also the beach nearby made famous by the movie “Jaws.”

Martha’s Vineyard is not the place they had imagined for themselves, they said, but it has become the place where they hope to put down roots. Mr. Cauro said he would like to bring his wife and two children from Venezuela once his own legal status was secured.

When his family calls him on FaceTime, he tells them to be patient. He has not seen them for a year, but he promises it will not be too much longer.

His 2-year-old son, Reynaldo, wearing a straw hat he rarely takes off, always asks when he will be home.

“I’m already home,” Mr. Cauro replies. One day, he reminds his son, he will also be home with him.


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