Reunion: Venezuelan migrants reunite on Martha's Vineyard a year after unexpected arrival

One year ago, 49 migrants, most of them from Venezuela, stunned Martha’s Vineyard when they showed up with no notice, having falsely been promised jobs and housing on the island.

Last weekend, three-quarters of those migrants returned, accepting an invitation to celebrate the one-year anniversary at a reunion marking the two days they spent living in the parish hall at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown.

“I think the biggest thing I found (during the reunion) is that the sense of community we created a year ago was still there. It was awesome,” said Janet Constantino, a nurse practitioner and therapist for Island Counseling Center, located at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

Constantino was working on Sept. 14, 2022, when the tired, hungry and thirsty migrants showed up in the community services parking lot, having walked nearly three miles from Martha’s Vineyard Municipal Airport after no one was there to meet them. Community services staff couldn’t fit 49 people in the building so they shared water and snacks, and started medical assessments in the parking lot.

Migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard in 2022 reunited

The reunion visit was a whole different experience.

The planning committee, led by Lisa Belcastro of Harbor Homes Martha’s Vineyard, Constantino, Rev. Cathlin Baker of the West Tisbury First Congregational Church, and the Rev. Chip Seadale of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, started work in July to arrange donations, transportation, potlucks and guest rooms.

“They had the opportunity to go to the beach, to go fishing, to jump off the ”Jaws” bridge and the kids went to the (Flying Horses) carousel. Then the other day, they went to the (Aquinnah Wampanoag) powwow,” said Constantino, a member of the planning committee that raised money to bring the Venezuelans back for a visit.

St. Andrew's once again opened its doors to host community meals and restaurants brought chicken wings and lasagna, as they had a year ago. But this time, the visitors didn’t have to sleep on air mattresses in the parish hall.

“We asked people to host the migrants as guests in homes around the island,” Constantino said.

A volunteer and visitor embrace as 36 of the 49 migrants stranded on Martha's Vineyard a year ago meet the people who helped them at a reunion Sept. 9-10.
A volunteer and visitor embrace as 36 of the 49 migrants stranded on Martha's Vineyard a year ago meet the people who helped them at a reunion Sept. 9-10.

Belcastro said in a written statement, “While we simply responded to the immediate need of the migrants, as many small communities would, those days that we all spent together (have) changed each one of us forever.”

Documentary tells story of the 48 hours migrants were on Martha's Vineyard

The event put Martha’s Vineyard in the national limelight.

The filmmaking arm of the nonprofit Circuit Arts production company on Martha’s Vineyard released a documentary called “Waiting to Continue.”

“It’s very much about the 48 hours the migrants were on the island and the community response. We also interviewed several migrants so we could have a good overview of their story as well,” said Ollie Becker, who directed the film with Tim Persinko and Tom Ellis.

A group photo at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church where the Sept. 9-10 reunion was centered.
A group photo at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church where the Sept. 9-10 reunion was centered.

The team premiered the documentary at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival in March and will show it at the Arlington Festival on Nov. 5.

They aired the film for the visiting migrants during the reunion weekend.

“We were grateful to be able to screen our story for them but it was nerve-wracking because they were the people it was about. But the excitement they got from seeing themselves and their friends on the screen was infectious,” Becker said.

Martha's VIneyard volunteers from last year welcome migrants back for a weekend reunion.
Martha's VIneyard volunteers from last year welcome migrants back for a weekend reunion.

Anyone who wants to see “Waiting to Continue” may email for access. The team is applying for a grant to make a follow-up on the migrants' stories.

Migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard created a political firestorm

The unexpected visit in 2022 also unleashed a political firestorm: Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had made statements about how migrants should be shipped north to sanctuary cities and took credit for sending the migrants to Martha's Vineyard. Critics said he had played with people’s lives for a political prank.

“These are real people. They suffered, they were human trafficked across state lines just to score some cheap political points,” said Carla Cooper, former chairman of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard and a volunteer who welcomed migrants.

Last month, Cape and Islands District Attorney Rob Galibois asked the Department of Justice to investigate any criminal activity that may be part of the migrant transport.

"We felt that it was imperative on us to reach out to DOJ and explain that we would like them to investigate the matter," Galibois told the Times during an August inverview.

A second documentary, co-directed by Oscar-nominated wife-and-husband team Kate Davis and David Heilbroner and executive produced by MSNBC, will be shown Sept. 16 and 17 at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, but both shows have already sold out.

The directors said their film will be broadcast nationally by MSNBC on Oct. 8 and begin streaming on Peacock the next day.

Davis said the film focuses on four of the migrants, who came back to Martha’sVineyard.

“We first interviewed cousins in their 20s with the help of an interpreter. There is a  brother and sister, Daniel and Deici, and their cousins, Jhorman and Eliud.”

Immigration: Venezuelans migrating to the U.S. and now to Martha's Vineyard: 'Out of desperation'

Heilbroner said, “They took this journey mostly on foot across six countries, mostly walking, and found themselves in Texas. The minute they saw that the only people at the (Martha's Vineyard) airport was a camera crew, they realized they had been duped. They were devastated.”

The directors said their documentary is a braid with several strands: migrants, islanders, volunteers (including state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Woods Hole, who was blowing up mattresses the first night) and an overview of the political battle waging nationally. It also features the work of two lawyers heavily involved in the situation, Rachel M. Self and Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, who will attend the Vineyard screening.

Gwenn Friss is the editor of CapeWeek and covers entertainment, restaurants and the arts. Contact her at Follow her or X, formerly Twitter: @dailyrecipeCCT

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Venezuelan migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard in 2022 are reunited