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Martha’s Vineyard officials condemn DeSantis remarks on sending more migrants but say they’d be ready to respond

As word spread this week that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he might send Haitian migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Lisa Belcastro, who runs the island’s winter homeless shelter, said her phone “blew up” with messages from people who had rushed to help two summers ago when dozens of migrants landed on the island without notice.

The messages had a common theme, she said. They condemned DeSantis for threatening to send more migrants but agreed that if more families do arrive, they’ll do their best to meet their needs and connect them with immigration services that are not available on the island.


“He’s sending them here, in a sense, to hurt them and to use people as political pawns,” Belcastro said.

“It’s not to say that everyone on the Vineyard wouldn’t pull together and try to help them until we have to relocate them to where the services are, but if you’re going to relocate people because you can’t service them in your state, the humane thing to do and the moral thing to do is to relocate them to where services are already in place.”

When 49 migrants, most of them Venezuelan, were flown to Martha’s Vineyard Airport on Sept. 14, 2022, officials and residents said they had no advance notice of their arrival. The DeSantis administration had sent the migrants to the island as part of a plan to relocate undocumented immigrants to so-called sanctuary states such as Massachusetts, a spokesperson said at the time.

The charter planes landed in the late afternoon, leaving little time for leaders to find suitable sleeping arrangements, food, medical care, and other basic amenities.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown opened its doors after the Rev. Chip Seadale, who was out of town that day, got a call from a parishoner about the situation. Dozens of cots were set up in the church and at the rectory across the street that evening, and local residents and businesses delivered food for the new arrivals, he said.


“Vineyarders showed up with food and clothing, medical services, dental services, all provided within about 48 hours. It was quite remarkable,” said State Senator Julian Cyr, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard.

Arthur Smadbeck, chairman of the Edgartown selectboard, said that officials eventually had to turn down volunteers who wanted to bring meals and serve as Spanish translators, because they had more than enough.

“That’s the way the Vineyard is, people came out of the woodwork,” Smadbeck said. “There were probably more volunteers than there were people on the plane.”

After about two days, state officials brought the migrants to a shelter at Joint Base Cape Cod, where they stayed for a few weeks before they were moved to temporary housing and homes in other states.

By November, 47 of the migrants had found housing in Massachusetts — in Lowell, Brockton, Stoughton, Provincetown, and other towns on Cape Cod. Four had returned to the Vineyard.

On Thursday, Seadale said if DeSantis decides to send another group, his parish is prepared to help again.

“The first time around, we dealt with them well and treated them as real people, and the Commonwealth took care of them for the balance, and now they’re integrated into society and pursuing their own asylum claims,” Seadale said.

“If you send us 1,000 Haitians, we’d be in trouble. But something akin to the same number we had before, we’d mobilize right away as we did before and probably do it even better.”


DeSantis’s comments came during an interview on a conservative podcast with host Dana Loesch and were first reported by Politico. DeSantis, who in January ended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, told Loesch that Florida is facing a possible influx of Haitian migrants and said the state’s program to transport migrants out of state is “going to be operational.”

“So Haitians land in the Florida Keys, their next stop very well may be Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said.

In anticipation of what his office called “the possibility of invasion” by Haitian migrants fleeing violence and turmoil in the island nation, DeSantis last week ordered more than 250 law enforcement officers and soldiers to the Florida Keys to stop migrants trying to reach the state by boat. But the Coast Guard said it hasn’t seen an increase in migrant traffic off Florida’s coast so far.

The Coast Guard said Thursday it has repatriated 131 migrants found at sea to Haiti since Oct. 1, including 65 who were found on a boat near the Bahamas.

“There is no influx and we still remain a strong presence within the Florida straights,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Eric Rodriguez.

Cyr, the state senator, blasted DeSantis for flying Venezuelan migrants to the island in 2022, calling it a political stunt.

“It wasn’t a recipe for success in his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s not a recipe for success serving Floridians,” Cyr said.


“DeSantis, once again, is threatening to treat human beings as political pawns. If you speak to the Venezuelan asylum seekers who did unexpectedly find themselves on Martha’s Vineyard, this was a traumatizing situation that manipulated and tricked people who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey’s office did not return a message seeking comment Thursday. DeSantis’s office also did not respond.

Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.