On Martha’s Vineyard, a migrant and a local are dumped together

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EDGARTOWN, Mass. – Earlier this month, Eliomar Aguero swam across the border between the United States and Mexico with seven other people. The 30-year-old had traveled for two months from Venezuela through 11 other countries on foot, by bus and by train.

Around the same time, Katrina Lima, 42, a real estate agent on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, was in the midst of her usual routine: shopping, work, dinners with friends. She looked forward to fall, a time when the holiday crowds thin out and the island gets even brighter.

Earlier this week, those two lives intersected in an unlikely chapter in America’s bitter immigration debate. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) chartered two planes to ferry a group of migrants from Texas to the small Massachusetts island, which serves as a summer retreat for the liberal elite.

The goal, he and other Republican officials said, was to draw attention to the growing number of migrant arrivals and ensure that Democratic-led states share the burden of caring for them. Democrats denounced the thefts as a stunt that used human beings as political pawns.

But for Aguero and Lima, the political fights were a long way off. He never imagined he could end up in a place like Martha’s Vineyard. Lima never expected such desperate journeys to lead to her island, but when they did, she jumped in to help.

Later, some of the migrants would tell him that it was a golpe of buena suerte — a stroke of luck — that they landed there.

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On Friday morning, Lima helped tick off the names as nearly 50 migrants boarded buses that would take them from the church where they had spent two nights to a ferry bound for the mainland. From there they would be transported to a military base on Cape Cod.

They now had full bags and new cell phones. Many wore purple long-sleeved Martha’s Vineyard High School shirts. As the migrants said goodbye to local volunteers who had provided them with food and shelter, many members of the group wept. Watching them leave, Lima cried too.

“You just hope they land where they’re supposed to,” she said. “And that they meet good people along the way.”

Aguero made a peace sign with his fingers as he boarded the bus. “Thank you all,” he said in Spanish. “Without these people here, I don’t know where we would be.”

He had woken before 7 a.m. that morning, his second full night of sleep after weeks of infancy. After the initial shock of landing not in Boston, Washington, DC or New York, as most migrants expected, Aguero began to relax. The island was beautiful, he was safe and his wife, Maria too. After two months of danger, he could breathe.

Aguero spent his life in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. The economic crisis and the political unrest in the country have plunged almost the entire population into poverty, including their families. Millions fled. Aguero, too, began looking for a way out.

There was one, but it was dangerous. Aguero and his wife left Venezuela in July hoping to reach the United States. For weeks they had nowhere to sleep. At some point, they were sent back from Chile to Colombia. From there they traveled all over Central America. Finally, after taking a notoriously dangerous train through Mexico, they reached the Rio Grande.

He and Maria knew how to swim and thought they would make it through. They tied up with other members of the group, entered the troubled waters and managed to land safely. They were now in the United States, but had no money, clothes, or telephone.

Aguero and his wife were eventually taken by immigration officials to San Antonio, where they were reunited with Aguero’s 23-year-old brother, Rafael, who had started his journey north a few weeks earlier. The couple spent 72 hours at a migrant support center before being thrown out on the streets, where they joined Rafael, who was scraping together money to buy food by working whatever odd jobs he could to find.

A blonde-haired woman approached the trio on the streets of San Antonio and introduced herself as “Perla.” She asked if they needed help. She offered them a hotel room while she considered taking them somewhere else. A few days later, Aguero, Maria and Rafael boarded a plane to an unknown destination.

He didn’t find out where they were going until the pilot came over the loudspeaker announcing that they would be arriving on Martha’s Vineyard soon.

When Aguero’s plane landed, Lima was at his computer for an afternoon filled with email correspondence, followed by a Zoom meeting. When the meeting was over, she rushed out the door to meet a group of friends for dinner at 19 Raw, an oyster bar in nearby Edgartown.

Lima was born in New York to Bolivian immigrant parents. When she was growing up, her family sometimes vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard. Lima’s older sister, a chief, later moved there, as did Lima, joining a community of about 20,000 year-round residents. Seven years ago, she started volunteering at the local homeless shelter.

As dinner ended, Lima finally checked her phone. She saw text messages asking if she could help interpret for a group of migrants who had arrived at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which was just around the corner from the restaurant.

She went straight. The voluntary effort was in full swing. The first man she spoke to started telling her his story. He had walked most of the way through Central America. He rode a freight train infamous for danger and violence – known as La Bestia – through Mexico. He faced hunger and corrupt officials and gangs.

That first night was spent trying to reassure people who didn’t understand where they were, Lima said. She tried to let them know that they were in good hands, but also that they were free to leave if they wished.

She was back the next morning at 6:30. It didn’t matter that she had work to do – she wanted to show migrants that they were welcome. She spent the next 15 hours there, helping manage a flow of volunteers, donors and journalists. She started making an Excel spreadsheet of what people had offered to donate: blankets, guest rooms, books, diapers, legal aid, therapy.

In the evening, she pulled an empty gray folding chair to her side and invited the migrants to talk about what they had been through. She heard of people being robbed and deceived and seeing their friends struggling to survive. So many people had started the journey with more people. Some were kidnapped or drowned or died of dehydration.

From the moment she heard about the arrival of the migrants, Lima was in turmoil. “Then you have times when you hear the stories,” she said. These are “moments when your heart stops”.

Friday morning began with breakfast provided by a nearby golf course. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (right) had organized a voluntary transport to Joint Base Cape Cod, a military base designated as an emergency shelter. The state said it would provide migrants with food as well as access to health care and legal aid.

Lima had spoken only briefly to Aguero and his family. On Friday, she wrote down his name as he approached the bus and hugged him. She spent the rest of the morning helping clean the church – stripping the beds, emptying the fridge, picking up water bottles. By early afternoon, she was back home and opening her laptop.

Aguero got on the bus. Clasped firmly in his hand was a new cell phone provided by a local social service organization. Less than half an hour later, the buses arrived at the port of Vineyard Haven. The sky was a clear blue and the water was dotted with sailboats. “It’s beautiful,” Aguero said, pointing to the port.

On the ferry to the mainland, Aguero and his brother were in good spirits, making videos as the boat glided through the water. The two brothers stood side by side and looked out to sea.

The waters now seemed friendlier than when Aguero had landed at the airport two days earlier. He still didn’t know exactly where they were going. Some of his fellow migrants had learned from volunteers that they would be staying on a military base. They didn’t know what it would mean, how long they would be there or how safe they would be. During their long trips to the United States, military officials had not always been friendly.

Aguero wasn’t nervous about the sequel, he said, because he was in America. Even with all the confusion of the last few days, everything would work out.

Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Edgartown, Mass. Slater reported from Williamstown, Mass.

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