Venezuelan migrants share their stories before leaving Martha's Vineyard. What they said

Jeannette Hinkle
Cape Cod Times

MARTHA'S VINEYARD — Smoking a cigarette a few yards away from St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown, a man with deep brown eyes described a baffling trip from Texas to the tiny island hamlet where he’d been marooned since Wednesday. 

The timeline is muddy, but the man — who didn’t want to share his name out of fear it would hurt his chances of remaining in the U.S. — said his first three days in the United States were spent at a Texas immigration center in San Antonio. Others that would join him on the trip north had already spent roughly two weeks there, he said. 

A friend of his told him there was a woman named Perla who was offering free flights. He doesn’t know much about who she is, but she spoke both Spanish and English. Others said she offered three months of guaranteed employment, even housing.

“She fooled us all,” he said through a translator. “She never told us the plane was coming here.”

The plane made two stops for fuel — the man didn’t know where — before it landed on Martha’s Vineyard. 

Carlos Munoz and other migrants prepare to board a bus on Friday to leave St. Andrews church in Edgartown.

Venezuelan migrants' future uncertain

The man’s future — along with that of the 47 other people who one attorney described as “plane-wrecked” on Martha’s Vineyard — remains uncertain. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for flying the migrants to Martha's Vineyard.

"So they've (DeSantis representatives) been in Texas identifying people that are trying to come to Florida and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions. So they went from Texas to Florida to Martha's Vineyard." he said during an appearance in Florida on Friday.

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He said more migrants will be bussed to other states and flights will likely continue.

On Friday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and DeSantis should send migrants to Nantucket next.

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The Venezuelan migrants arrived on the island with paperwork that listed mandatory court dates in places as far away as Tacoma, Washington, some scheduled as early as Monday, according to Rachel Self, an immigration attorney who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and met with some of the migrants. Federal agents had listed their addresses as homeless shelters across the country, she said.  

“It could not be clearer that this is an attempt to ensure that these people are ordered removed, even as they try as hard as they can to comply with the instructions provided to them,” Self said, who added the migrants were set up to fail when they were “plane-wrecked” on the island.

At St. Andrews parish hall in Edgartown on Thursday, immigration attorney Rachel Self points to the map that migrants were shown before being transported to Martha's Vineyard.

Self, who said she chose a home on the island because it is a refuge from her stressful job on the mainland, excoriated those who sent the migrants to an island where even underwear can be difficult to procure on short notice. 

“Accounts from the migrants who arrived last night make it clear that they were lied to again and again and fraudulently induced to board the planes,” Self said on Thursday evening. “They were told there was a surprise present for them, and that there would be jobs and housing waiting for them when they arrived. This was obviously a sadistic lie.”

A long journey north

Carlos Muños made the trip north from Venezuela for his four-year-old son. 

Through a translator, the wiry 25-year-old said that his goal is to bring his son to the United States. 

He wants his son to have the things he didn’t have — a meaningful education, the freedom to express his opinions without fear of persecution, a job where he can earn enough money to afford food. He wants to be able to take his son to the beach, he said, to the park. He wants his son to go to college. 

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And he wants to go to college, too, “if the United States gives me the opportunity.” 

Muñoz studied electrical engineering at home, he said, and had finished six of 10 semesters when the economy collapsed, ending his studies. But Muñoz, whose passion for motorcycles is evidenced by a tattoo of a motorcycle wheel on his arm, was able to keep working on motorcycles. He hopes to turn his skills as a mechanic into a career here in the U.S. 

“I want peace,” he said. “Tranquility.”

The migrants’ journey to the 87-square-mile island off Cape Cod was far from tranquil. 

A heart attack and a fatal snake bite

Everlides Dela Hoz, a mother and grandmother who made the trek from Venezuela with her husband and 25-year-old son, said the journey was grueling and heartbreaking.

“We were in the mountains for nine days,” she said on Friday, standing feet from the lapping waves she would soon cross on a ferry bound for Woods Hole, and ultimately Joint Base Cape Cod on the Upper Cape. 

Migrant Everlides Delahoz talks about her life in Venezuela before boarding a ferry bound for Woods Hole from Vineyard Haven.

On her way north, Dela Hoz saw people in her group of travelers die of heart attacks. She saw people drown. She saw a man who was bitten in the face by a snake die in front of his young son.

“He was only 25,” she said of the man.

The Venezuelan migrants are among a global diaspora of millions of people who left the country to escape a depressed economy, a dictatorial regime and little hope of anything improving anytime soon. Most go to Colombia, but tens of thousands have made their way to the U.S and other countries, according to the U.S. State Department website.

Venezuelan diaspora numbers in the millions globally

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there are now more than six million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide, mostly in the Caribbean and other Latin American countries. The agency estimates more than 950,000 of these people are asylum seekers.

"This has become the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world," the agency says on its website.

Yelianny, a 21-year-old who didn't give her last name, made the trip with her boyfriend. She remembered praying in the jungle.

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“In that jungle they rob you, they rape you,” she said in the shade of the well-manicured bushes outside the Edgartown church that had become a refuge for the group, a silver chain bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dangling from her neck. “Thank you God, they didn’t hurt me.”

For strength, Yelianny thought of her mother, who died six years ago. 

“She taught me to be a warrior,” Yelianny said, typing the words into Google Translate. 

As she snacked on M&M's handed out by the team of volunteers that cared for the migrants in Edgartown, Yelianny held up a photo she had stored on her phone. It showed her hiking up a slope surrounded by dense and dark tropical foliage, eyes trained down on the terrain before her, black hair pulled into a loose ponytail, the straps of a teal backpack visible on her shoulders. Thick mud coated her legs. In the jungle, she said, they didn’t eat for days.

Along with her boyfriend and a white and brown puppy she named Toby Alejandro, Yelianny trekked across seven countries from Venezuela to reach the United States border. She showed photos and videos of the scrapes and bruises she sustained along the way, of the view from a boat she took north in Columbia, of a trash-strewn camp crisscrossed with clotheslines and dotted by palm trees.

She showed photo after photo of Toby Alejandro, the puppy that stayed by her side throughout the perilous journey, one of him cuddling with her at home, another of him wearing a harness and covered in jungle mud.

“I had to leave my puppy in Tapachula, Mexico,” she said. 

No future in Venezuela

She was told the dog couldn’t come with her. She had to keep going. There were few if any options for her in Venezuela.

“There is no work and the dollar is super high,” Yelianny said. “That’s why we left our country, in search of the American dream, of better stability for our family.”

It took Maria Paz and her boyfriend one month and 20 days to get to the United States from Venezuela. 

“It is not easy to get here,” she said through Google Translate. 

Now that she is here, she feels good, she said on Thursday, thanking God. 

The conditions in Venezuela are bad, Paz said. 

“That is why we decided to come here,” she said.

Her mother is there, along with her two older brothers. 

“I am the little one,” said the 18-year-old. 

Her mother misses her, Paz said. She wants her daughter back home with her, in Venezuela. 

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But Paz is happy to be here, despite the fact that she and her boyfriend have no connections in the U.S. and don’t know what is next for them. She is not afraid, she said.

“Because now I’m going to be able to meet my goals,” she said. “I left Venezuela for a better future for me and my family.”

She dreams of getting an iPhone. She dreams of making a home in San Francisco, or maybe even on the island where she landed. She likes it here, she said.

“I would like to stay here,” Paz said on Thursday. “It is a very beautiful little town and the people are super nice.”

But on Friday, Paz stood outside the church that had taken her in two days earlier, bag in hand, ready to leave the island. She stood with Yelianny, a new friend, as volunteers and migrants embraced around them.

“We both came here for our families to have better futures,” the pair said in a Google Translate message they crafted together.

Venezuelan migrants used as 'political piñatas'

Republican governors and other politicians from Southern states that share a border with Mexico criticize the Biden administration for not controlling immigration at the border. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reported a record number of encounters along the U.S.-Mexico border. Border patrol agents have made 1.82 million arrests so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. In fiscal year 2021, there were 1.66 million arrests, according to the Department of Homeland Security

Republicans have blamed the high number of border encounters and arrests on the Biden administration for not being more aggressive in securing the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

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Those arriving at the southern border have changed in recent years, according to border officials, who report that migrants from dozens of countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and India, are now being apprehended. In the past, it was mostly Mexicans and those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — Central America’s Northern Triangle countries.

Domingo Garcia, president of The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic and Latin-American civil rights organization, said that the group that was flown to Martha’s Vineyard was being used as a “political piñata.” Before arriving in Martha's Vineyard, he had flown from Texas to Washington D.C., where he helped care for another group of migrants who were dropped off with no warning in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ house. 

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“My main goal is to find out their stories,” Garcia said. “How they got tricked, how they got deceived, into getting on a plane to Martha’s Vineyard. I think that’s the real story here, that the governor of Florida and the governor of Texas are using immigrants and refugees as political pawns to score points. We saw babies yesterday in Washington D.C. and they are being treated like disposable human beings for political props.”

Garcia said he plans to file a complaint with the Department of Justice requesting a review to determine if crimes or human rights violations were committed by those who put the migrants on the plane. 

“Some of the immigrants told me that they were promised they would get three months of work, free housing and free transportation,” Garcia said. “It was all just a terrible lie.”

Dela Hoz said that the group, while grateful for the response of the islanders to their arrival, is angry that they were lied to. 

“When we got on the plane, they told us they would give us jobs, a place to live, everything,” she said through a translator. “The whole group is pretty upset. But they did take us to a nice place.”

Humanitarian assistance at Joint Base Cape Cod

Though she didn’t know it, Dela Hoz’s next stop would be Joint Base Cape Cod, where Massachusetts officials have said migrants will be given medical help, mental health care and legal assistance, as well as temporary accommodations. 

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, spoke on Thursday outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown.

“We’re working on some longer-term housing solutions, as well,” said state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Wood Hole, shortly after the bus departed for the base, migrants waving through the darkly-tinted windows.

“This is what good government actually looks like and this is what compassionate government actually looks like,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the people of Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod for their incredible work here, and I couldn’t be prouder to be from the state of Massachusetts to have a state team that pulled this together so quickly.”

Translation services provided by Maria Cancel.

Contact Jeannette Hinkle at Follow her Twitter: @Jenny_Hinkle.

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