Six months ago, Eliud made an unplanned trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Now he’s here to stay — or at least he is hopeful about that.
One of 49 migrants, most of them Venezuelan, who were unknowingly flown from Texas to the Island by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in September, Eliud and his three cousins are the only ones who found their way back to the Vineyard to stay.
Over the winter they have quietly settled into Island life, taking English classes at night and working odd jobs as they begin to navigate the labyrinthine American immigration system, a process that can take years.
On a recent evening, Eliud was at home in Edgartown, watching the first cut of a documentary produced by Circuit Arts, a nonprofit Vineyard film organization, about the ordeal that put him and his fellow migrants at the center of U.S. political theatre, sparking a fresh round of heated national debate on immigration.
Circuit Arts executive director Brian Ditchfield sat in a corner of the room.
“It’s very good,” Eliud said in Spanish.
Still, he said, seeing his life through this wider lens was a little strange.
“I know the experience, because it was my experience,” he told Mr. Ditchfield. “But here I get to see how it was from everyone else’s perspective. It’s the whole view.”
The whole view looks different now. A short time after landing on the Vineyard in September, Eliud and the other migrants were transferred to Joint Base Cape Cod to receive more services.
After returning to the Vineyard, Daniel, Daisy, Eliud and German had Thanksgiving with attorney Rachel Self. Ms. Self has been helping other migrants who were dropped on the Island.
— Courtesy of Rachel Self
After several weeks there, Eliud, along with his cousins Daisy, Daniel and German, began to wonder where else they could go.
All the cousins are in their 20s. Daisy and Daniel are siblings. They have no other family in the U.S. but had made some friends during their brief stay on the Island. Two of those friends were Jacqueline and Larkin Stallings, Oak Bluffs business owners who had played a central role in the response effort after the migrants had landed on the Vineyard.
Eliud contacted the Stallings, who connected him and his cousins with Mike Benjamin, an Island musician.
Since October, the four have been living in Mr. Benjamin’s spare apartments at the old Edgartown dairy co-op in Cow Bay.
The housing is temporary — they will have to move out in May — but they are grateful for it after the long, grueling and perilous journey that brought them here in the first place.
Sitting around Mr. Benjamin’s dining room table on a February evening, over pizza and salad they described some of that journey. Most of the conversation took place in Spanish. The Gazette has agreed to use only first names to protect their privacy.
The four cousins recounted the weeks they spent trekking through a Central American forest on foot, crossing the Rio Grande and eventually getting to Texas, which they described as a frenzy of people and activity compared to the lonely passages through the wilderness.
“It was very ugly,” Daniel said. “There’s thunder above your head. Your feet hurt, every part of your body hurts, the rain’s pouring down and you’re so tired but you can’t stop. You don’t have an option. You just have to keep going.”
He described the children who joined the journey, some as young as two years old. He watched a dog die after drinking a can of Red Bull by mistake, he said, and suffered painful rashes from weeks spent in the damp jungle without a fresh change of clothes.
“We’re lucky to be alive,” Daniel said. “There were people who didn’t make it. Many people died.”
Under American immigration law, asylum seekers must wait 150 days from the time they file their application for asylum before applying for work authorization, which itself takes 90 days. That can mean that individuals are waiting up to a year in the U.S. before pursuing legal work.
In the interim, the four cousins said they’ve been staying busy, among other things studying English to help prepare them for employment down the line.
“You can’t do anything here without knowing English,” Daisy said. “First I want to learn English, then I want to go to school and study to get a job.”
Previously she worked as an aide for a child with mental and physical disabilities. She and her brother Daniel had been living in Peru at that time, and the experience left a lasting impression.
“It was very difficult, but very, very rewarding,” she said. “I’d love to study something related to that and work with individuals with disabilities again.”
Daniel and Eliud both have families in Venezuela who need their support. Daniel hasn’t seen his wife and two daughters since August, he said. His youngest daughter, age two, is still too young to understand where he has gone.
“She just knows that I’m traveling,” he said. “She always asks, when will Dad be home? And we just tell her that I’m traveling. I don’t know how much longer until she starts to understand. She’s very smart for her age.”
How the Venezuelan asylum seekers ended up on Martha’s Vineyard remains the subject of ongoing legal inquiry. In what was widely believed to be a political stunt by Gov. DeSantis, the migrants were lured onto a plane in Texas under false pretenses.
The four cousins described their deep sense of betrayal.
“To have gone through all of that, and then to be tricked?” said Daniel. “I couldn’t believe it. I had never in my life thought I would end up on an island, surrounded on all sides by water.”
Venezuelan migrants gather round a table at St. Andrew’s church and parish house after being unexpectedly flown to Martha’s Vineyard in September.
— Ray Ewing
He paused for a second.
“It is very pretty, though,” he said. “It’s beautiful, I’ll give it that.”
Now they have begun to forge happier memories on the Island.
In October, Mr. Benjamin took three of the cousins bonito fishing on his boat in Menemsha Harbor. “I caught one this big,” Eliud said, holding up his fingers about four inches apart.
“That’s a black bass,” Mr. Benjamin smiled.
In November, all four cousins joined immigration attorney Rachel Self at her Cape Pogue home for their first Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve since been back many times, most recently for a slumber party to wait out the deep freeze that occurred in early February.
“They had never seen Top Gun, so we watched the first two movies,” Ms. Self told the Gazette by phone. “We cooked, we played music . . . we had a blast.”
Ms. Self represents five other migrants in their immigration cases and has kept in touch with many more as they’ve moved on to their final destinations in the states.
From a legal standpoint, she believes that the 49 asylum seekers are victims of a crime, and now the victims of a complex immigration system. But she underscored the tremendous courage it takes for someone to leave their country in the midst of economic and political turmoil.
“Everybody on that plane was already a survivor,” Ms. Self said. “It’s what made them take the walk that they did . . . They’re incredibly strong . . . and they’re not looking for anybody to make it for them. Nobody’s looking for a handout.”
The future on the Island remains uncertain for the four cousins, who will need to find a new place to live come spring.
But after everything they’ve gone through, they appear undaunted at the prospect of a search for summer housing on the Vineyard.
“We’d like to remain together, and we’d like to stay here [on the Island], but it’s up to what options we get,” Daisy said. “We’ll do whatever we can.”
The other cousins nod in agreement.
“We just have to keep moving forward,” Daniel said.