Editor’s Note: Daniela Gerson is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, and a former community engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ move to send two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday night is not the first to bring the nation’s immigration battles to the elite summer destination.
That island off the coast of Massachusetts is more accustomed than many places in the United States to welcoming an influx of South Americans. Not Venezuelans, but Brazilians. And not asylum-seekers lacking connections dropped from the sky, but labor migrants who follow friends and family across multiple countries.
Indeed, for decades Martha’s Vineyard has been a microcosm of much of our national hypocrisy with regard to immigration laws – violations that cross party lines. It’s also been a story of what immigrants contribute to communities when provided an opportunity.
The descent into cruel political stunts distracts from how our broken immigration system is not a partisan problem. It’s an American one. And one that Congress has failed to act on for decades.
Our laws reflect neither the reality of our labor needs nor our humanitarian aspirations. Dumping asylum-seekers on an island they did not choose to go to and that is unprepared for their arrival is not only cruel, it also distracts from the hard work of finding a solution to a broader patchwork system overrun with problems.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote an article for the Financial Times, “How migration transformed Martha’s Vineyard.” Replacing the mostly white college students who used to paint houses, make beds and party, thousands of Brazilians began arriving in the 1990s, prepared to work harder and reliably show up in the morning. By 2007, about 1 out of 3 children born on the island had a Brazilian mother, according to Massachusetts health data.
I traced the island’s booming Brazilian population to one man, Lyndon Johnson Pereira. In 1986, he left behind a small rural town in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and found a job washing dishes at a bakery in Boston.
Then, a customer suggested he help her open a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. Walking off a boat on a gray December day, he could not understand why anyone would want to come to the desolate island.
But by June of 1987, when Pereira turned 24 and took a rare day off to go fishing with his boss, he had discovered Martha’s Vineyard’s summer charms. “It was a birthday different than all others, living on an island where I’m the only Brazilian,” he wrote home. “It’s a land full of millionaires in the summer, full of artists, and actors. It’s a beautiful island, and I hope to make good money this summer so that I can return as soon as possible.”
It took Pereira a year and a half to earn enough to return home. But he had already triggered the island’s first significant immigration influx since the Portuguese more than a century earlier. And while he left, many of those who came after did not. By 2009, local leaders told me they estimated that of the year-round population of 15,000 at the time, around 3,000 were Brazilian.
Many Brazilian immigrants arriving on the island had entered the United States through the southern border with Mexico, crossing it illegally. Others overstayed tourist visas. Not all were undocumented, but community leaders told me at the time that they believed most lacked legal status.
All the summer residents, from world leaders to movie stars to tourists on day trips from Boston, who came to enjoy the island benefited from their labor. I concluded my report noting President Barack Obama was set to visit in the summer of 2009, play golf and lunch at places staffed with Brazilians. (He had not yet bought his $11.75 million property on the island.)
“When the summer’s over, the president will return to Washington and face a busy agenda,” I wrote, “which will not include a promised overhaul of the US immigration system, now postponed until 2010 at least.”
It will be years more before we can even try to imagine a US leader having the political will and congressional support to push immigration reform.
Meanwhile, a generation of children of Brazilians have grown up as islanders. There are marriages between immigrants and residents whose families go back generations in the United States.
Brazilians have adapted to the island culture, and they have contributed to it. Current US census data identifies a little under 1,000 year-round Brazilian-born residents, but the number is likely much higher as immigrants tend to be undercounted generally. Those who can have become US citizens. Portuguese is offered in the regional high school. All of the big island industries include Brazilian-owned businesses: construction, boat repair, landscaping, restaurants, cleaning, transportation and technology.
When news spread of the recent migrants being dropped on the island, members of the Brazilian community wanted to help. While some asked how these newcomers would find housing when there already was a shortage on the island, others offered their own homes.
On the Brazukada Facebook page, a group with more than 10,000 members where the local Brazilian community shares news and tips, a woman’s message in Portuguese was typical of the response: “I’m very grateful to God today that I have all that my family needs. I want to help these people that arrived yesterday here on the island.”
After a frantic day and night, the group of mostly Venezuelans was transferred on Friday morning to a military base on Cape Cod. Despite an outpouring of financial and material support, Martha’s Vineyard could not offer the help these migrants need. The island has no shelter facility or immigration court, and some of the migrants had court appointments as soon as Monday as far away as Washington state, according to immigration attorney Rachel Self.
At the start of a long and complex legal process, it is unclear where these migrants will end up next. But the Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard will remain on the island that they have made their home.