May 17, 2023

“When Compassion Defeated Cruelty,” Migrants and a Welcoming Community

COMPASSION CONQUERS: Martha’s Vineyard residents Rachel Self, an immigration lawyer, and Larkin Starlings, a tavern and restaurant owner, told a gathering of Latin American Legal Defense and Education (LALDEF) supporters how they and their fellow islanders welcomed an unanticipated planeload of Venezuelan immigrants.

By Donald Gilpin

Rachel Self, an immigration lawyer who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, got the call on September 14, 2022. “There were 49 people who had just been dropped off on the island, and none of them spoke English and nobody knew where they came from, and nobody knew what to do,” she told a gathering of Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) supporters at the Nassau Presbyterian Church earlier this month.

Self and Larkin Stallings, also a Martha’s Vineyard resident, told the story of how the island welcomed a planeload of Venezuelan immigrants, who had been transported from Texas by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

LALDEF Board Chair Pete Taft of Princeton noted in introducing the speakers, “We have a home in Martha’s Vineyard, and my two worlds collided last August when the governor of Florida, in a breathtaking act of cruelty, shipped 49 Venezuelans to the Vineyard, but my summer community embraced them with open arms and it was breathtaking compassion that I saw.”

Larkin, a tavern and restaurant owner and vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services organization, got involved soon after the immigrants’ arrival. He was sitting with his wife, a Mexican American from south Texas, at their restaurant when he got the call that the 49 had arrived and translators were needed. They left their food and drinks on the table and met the immigrants a few minutes later at St. Andrews Church in Edgartown on the island.

“DeSantis, in an attempt to make himself look good and those of us who care about the issue look bad, took 49 individuals, put them on a plane, took them to an unsuspecting destination and set them on the street,” said Stallings. “They were told they were going to a spot where there would be jobs waiting for them, housing waiting for them, some sort of monetary relief, that they would be taken care of. But getting them to Martha’s Vineyard turned out to be a big publicity stunt.”

Stallings went on to describe the welcome that the Vineyard locals were able to offer to help the migrants and foil DeSantis’s publicity plan. “All it is is using these human beings as political pawns to gin up a part of our community that is fearful,” he said. “The reality about these folks, the reality of who came to stay with us, is that they were some of the most interesting, kind, generous, hardworking, loving folks I have ever come across in my lifetime. The beauty of it was the gift that DeSantis gave us in Martha’s Vineyard.”

He continued, “It was a chance for us to come together and meet and work in the trenches together as we had never done before. DeSantis did that. And the work was getting these people to a place of safety and security.”

Noting that the volunteers —hundreds altogether, often 30-50 at a time — were mostly not the wealthy Vineyard summer crowd but people who live there year-round, Stallings emphasized the shortage of support facilities available in Martha’s Vineyard in the off-season.

“The vast majority of the folks who stood up and did the greeting and the string of beds and the feeding and the care of these individuals are folks who have other jobs,” he said. “When people step up, it turns out we can do anything.”

The Venezuelans all had immigration dates set in a wide range of locales across the country — none in Martha’s Vineyard — and they all were eager to find work, but first they needed food, beds, clothing, and in some cases medical attention. They ranged from 2-year-olds to a 68-year-old man who, before he crossed the border, had had his teeth pulled out and his jaw broken by bandits in Mexico.

Self described the relentlessly stressful life of an immigration attorney, always on call with “everything a fire to put out, everything an emergency, everybody needs something now, and lives are hanging in the balance.”

She knew that the situation at the church in Edgartown was confused and unsettled in the beginning, but “what was clear was that there was a need for a response,” she said. “And because they were recently arrived, immigrants and asylum seekers who had just been paroled into the country — these were not undocumented individuals —they had their papers stamped by the Department of Homeland Security with protection lawfully guaranteed by this country.”

She explained that they needed legal assistance to make sure they didn’t miss their appointments with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or do anything that might imperil future immigration relief they might apply for.

“With a bare bones version of the story that we knew by the end of the day, I knew they had been victimized,” Self said. “I knew they had been victims of a crime.” She proceeded quickly to help organize support for the 49, with her own legal expertise and the enlisting of other pro bono attorneys to provide assistance. She also, along with San Antonio Sheriff Salazar, helped to coordinate the criminal investigation with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department in Texas, resulting in U visa certifications for all 49 victims.

Self condemned the actions of the organizers of the September 14 flight. “They told bald-faced lies, and on top of that they didn’t even bother to do basic research about the immigration system,” she said. “They were so sure that they knew what’s best for our country and its immigration policy that they were willing to round people up, lie to them, and ship them half way across the United States for a ‘gotcha’ moment, but they didn’t know the first thing about how the system worked.”

She went on to describe the response in Martha’s Vineyard. “The way everybody came together on the island to coordinate assistance was amazing,” she said. “It has been amazing to watch everybody rise to the occasion. Sometimes justice is elusive, but in some cases the most vulnerable among us will find it. Our community, which is now enriched and better with 49 more individuals, is incredibly strong.”

Starlings added, “My wife and I got to spend 48 hours doing something that was really incredible and working with folks we’ll be lifelong friends with. They have become part of our lives forever.”

Taft thanked Self and Starlings for sharing their “stories of compassion,” and added, “Their presence and presentations meant the world to us, and to the men and women and children we serve.”

LALDEF, based in Trenton, serves the Latino communities in the Mercer County region and beyond, seeking to prevent human rights violations, educate Latino immigrants about their rights and responsibilities, and foster their incorporation into their communities.