Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Lessons Learned From a Martha’s Vineyard Legal Responder

April 26, 2023
| Spring 2023 Vol. 67 #2

By Emily Leung

As a legal services attorney responding to the unexpected arrival in September 2022 of 49 mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers, who were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard without prior notice, I witnessed the best that the Massachusetts legal community and allied support networks have to offer in terms of generosity, creativity, and compassion. I was also deeply dismayed by the incident and its attendant abuse of vulnerable individuals navigating the United States’ challenging immigration system. I hope the attention generated by this incident can help improve policies and increase resources for immigrant communities in Massachusetts.

Many of the asylum-seekers were under the impression they were en route from Texas to potential work opportunities in Boston, Washington, D.C., or other locations. Consequently, their arrival on Martha’s Vineyard was as much a surprise to them as it was to the residents of the island. Confusion and surprise on the day of the arrival eventually gave way to shock, as it became clear that their presence was part of a political stunt.

Impressively, the local community on the island immediately organized themselves to provide emergency shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention, and tried to make the individuals and families feel welcome. As they did so, information emerged about the circumstances of the group’s arrival that revealed an elaborate scheme to make a policy point that states further from the United States’ southern border should share the impact of such new arrivals to the country. Beginning in April 2022, Texas and Arizona had begun transporting busloads of asylum-seekers outside their territories. However, the September 2022 Martha’s Vineyard flight from Texas marked the first publicized instance of a border-state government using a privately-chartered airplane to move asylum-seekers to other jurisdictions in the United States.

At first, the most urgent issues were not legal in nature, but concerned basic human needs. Nonetheless, many of the individuals were understandably concerned about scheduled appearances in their pending immigration cases, particularly as some had previously received instructions to report to various Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices throughout the country just a few days later. Fortunately, I and other legal advocates successfully and quickly addressed the ICE reporting requirements, and then turned our attention to the more significant potential legal issues.

An impressive number of attorneys volunteered to assess individual legal claims, while Lawyers for Civil Rights led an investigation of potential civil claims against those who were responsible for bringing the group to Martha’s Vineyard. Simultaneously, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement agency for the county from where the immigrants departed Texas, launched a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the group’s transport from Bexar County to the island. As this was happening, the group was once again moved, this time to Joint Base Cape Cod, where the Commonwealth stepped in to provide temporary emergency housing, food, and supportive services. In addition, numerous charitable organizations and individuals provided supplementary food, clothing, and personal items.

In the following weeks, I spent many days on Joint Base Cape Cod, helping to connect the group to pro bono legal counsel, answering their many immigration questions, liaising with nonprofit and state agencies, aiding the civil and criminal investigations, and providing general support for the group. I did this work in conjunction with dedicated immigration staff from my organization (the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts) and several attorneys and volunteers who graciously offered their time and resources. I was grateful for my experience in legal aid, which, as here, demands a combination of legal skills, social work, and elbow grease to achieve goals. By the end of their stay at the base, this group received significantly more support than many other recent arrivals to the Commonwealth. Their individual cases and the civil lawsuits that ensued are ongoing.

During the past year, the influx of immigrants to Massachusetts has increased substantially. Apart from its political ramifications, the immigrant experience highlighted by the September 2022 incident raises important larger questions about how we as a community and state can and should be providing support to recent arrivals to the Commonwealth, and what policies we should enact to achieve those goals. According to the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, the Commonwealth received around 1,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in 2021; by comparison, an estimated 2,000 individuals, primarily from Haiti and countries in South America, arrived in the Boston area just between May and August 2022. In recent months, the Commonwealth has increased its provision of housing and other supportive services to newly arrived immigrants, but many do not qualify, and the programs still have many delays and barriers.

Massachusetts is the only state to offer a right to shelter for families and pregnant women facing homelessness, in furtherance of which the state has been providing housing and assistance for many recently-arrived families. See G.L. c. 23B § 30 (Emergency Housing Assistance Program). While recent moves to increase funding to this program are a step in the right direction, more is needed to assist those who do not qualify for the emergency assistance housing program.

Recent arrivals to the Commonwealth also need legal assistance to navigate an ever more complex immigration legal system. Thanks in part to frequent rule changes, the increased influx of immigrants has strained both legal aid programs and private practitioners who serve them. More funding for legal services to assist immigrant communities is needed, as well as additional pro bono support. Additional funding for community-based organizations, which can provide cultural and social support to complement state agency programs, is also crucial.

Many recently-arrived individuals and families are fleeing violence, persecution, extreme economic or food insecurity, or failed and corrupt governments, and are ultimately seeking humanitarian assistance from the United States. While these issues implicate broader federal immigration policy, states and cities also have a role to play. Leaders in Massachusetts have pledged to be welcoming to immigrants, including former Mayor Marty Walsh, who offered to house immigrants in Boston City Hall, and then-Attorney General Maura Healey, who frequently sued the federal government over policies that adversely affected immigrant communities.

The example of Martha’s Vineyard demonstrated what we can do when resources are rallied, and provides a guide for how the Commonwealth can improve upon its longstanding support of our immigrant neighbors who continue to face a labyrinthine immigration system and serious humanitarian challenges.

Emily B. Leung is the Director of Immigration Advocacy for the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts, a subsidiary of South Coastal Counties Legal Services.