The moneyed summer resort became an unlikely arena in the fight over illegal immigration. Republican states have bused thousands of migrants to New York and Washington.
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About 50 migrants unexpectedly arrived by plane on Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, local officials said, escalating a tactic in which Republican-led states have shipped busloads of migrants to liberal bastions like Washington and New York to protest the significant rise in illegal immigration under President Biden.
The migrant group, which included children, arrived on two planes around 3 p.m. without any warning, said State Senator Julian Cyr, a Massachusetts Democrat representing Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Officials and volunteers from the island’s six towns “really moved heaven and earth to essentially set up the response that we would do in the event of a hurricane,” he said.
As the migrants received Covid-19 tests, food and clothing, there was confusion on the ground about who had sent them to Martha’s Vineyard, a popular getaway for the moneyed and powerful. Migrants said they had started the day in San Antonio, but it was the Florida governor’s office that took responsibility.
Taryn M. Fenske, the communications director for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, said the two flights were part of a state program to transport undocumented immigrants to so-called sanctuary destinations. This year the Florida Legislature set aside $12 million for the transportation program.
“States like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden administration’s open border policies,” Ms. Fenske said in a statement.
One of the migrants, who asked to be identified only as Leonel, said in Spanish that the people of Martha’s Vineyard were generous and that he “had never seen anything like it.” They gave him a pair of shoes.
“I haven’t slept well in three months,” said Leonel, who does not have any relatives or friends in the United States. “It’s been three months since I put on a new pair of pants. Or shoes.”
Leonel, 45, said he had left Venezuela about three months ago, crossing the roadless Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama and making his way north through Central America and Mexico. His first attempt at crossing the U.S. border failed. During his second attempt, at Piedras Negras, Mexico, he made it across the Rio Grande.
Leonel spent several days in immigration detention before being released in San Antonio, where he and other migrants were eventually told they could get passage to Massachusetts. They agreed.
Terry MacCormack, the press secretary for Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, said in a statement that his administration was in communication with local island officials, who were providing “short-term shelter services” to the migrants.
The migrants appear to mostly be from Venezuela, State Representative Dylan Fernandes said. They received basic relief services at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services in Oak Bluffs before being taken across the street to the regional high school and eventually to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, a former whaling town that is the most manicured on the island.
Even large American cities have struggled to cope with migrants who arrive “with little to no notice,” as Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois put it in a disaster proclamation on Wednesday. He cited the emergency shelter and medical care needed by the 500 migrants who have been shipped on buses from Texas to Chicago.
“While other states may be treating these vulnerable families as pawns, here in Illinois, we are treating them as people,” Mr. Pritzker said in a statement.
The challenge faced by Martha’s Vineyard — which has a year-round population of about 20,000 — may be even more stark.
The Rev. Chip Seadale said St. Andrew’s had decided to take in the migrants for the night after learning that they had nowhere to go. A parishioner had reached out to him, knowing that the church helps house homeless people in the winter.
The island’s sole homeless shelter does not operate during the summer and has room for 10 people, with one bathroom, said Barbara Rush, the warden at St. Andrew’s. “Fifty people with no homes is an overwhelming number for the size of the community,” she said. “But this is a strong and capable community.”
While Martha’s Vineyard is known as the summer destination for the rich and powerful — President Barack Obama and John Kerry have homes there — the island faces a shortage of affordable housing, with the median home price at about $1 million. The migrants are also arriving just at the end of the summer season, when seasonal work has ended.
“There are literally no jobs in the winter, and there is no affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard,” Ms. Rush said. “The bulk of people that work a lower- to middle-income job live off island and commute.”
She said local community groups, churches and restaurants were all pitching in. Among the volunteers was Sergio Racig, a property manager who went to the church to help translate. “Some of them were tortured by the Mexican cartel — some very, very bad things happened to them,” he said, adding, “They are happy to see all the support from the island.”
Mr. DeSantis, a Republican with presidential ambitions, has repeatedly bashed the federal government for transporting migrants to Florida and has threatened to send them to liberal enclaves instead. He has frequently mentioned Mr. Biden’s home state of Delaware as a possible destination.
Mr. DeSantis’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette M. Núñez, a Cuban American, faced political heat last month from Democrats in Miami, her hometown, when she said in a Spanish-language radio interview that Cuban migrants illegally crossing the border from Mexico should be bused out of state.
The Florida governor told reporters last month that the state had not yet relocated migrants because a similar program in Texas had “taken a lot of pressure off us.” Texas has sent at least 6,200 migrants to the nation’s capital this year, but the governor’s office there said on Wednesday that it had not been involved in the transportation to Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Cyr, the Massachusetts state senator, criticized the motive behind the flights. “This is a cruel ruse that manipulates families that are seeking a better life,” he said, adding, “Our community has been targeted, clearly.”
J. David Goodman and Michael Levenson contributed reporting.