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Martha’s Vineyard Residents Fought Cruelty With Kindness

Martha's Vineyard Volunteers

The man who recruited the planeload of migrants who flew to Martha's Vineyard from Texas under an arrangement with Florida officials spoke out for the first time earlier this week to CNN. He had been living on the streets of San Antonio when he was approached by a woman named Perla who offered him food, clothes and money, and then lied to him about how to recruit migrants for the flight.

"She had told me that the people who were going to Massachusetts, before I sent them, she had told me that they were going to receive them. They were going to be given shelter, a place to stay. They were going to help them with the language, and those who had children, they were going to study," he said.

And late last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, the state of Florida, and the state Department of Transportation in response to the lies and the calculated cruelty that was inflicted upon the migrants.

Cruelty is defined as the “callous indifference to or pleasure in causing pain and suffering.” It is a harsh word, even when spoken. And most of us, at least those of us with a conscience, can recognize cruelty when we see it.

Our community is very familiar with cruelty. We see it in gay-bashing attacks, fatal beatings of trans men and women, insipid attitudes toward drag queens, and the repugnant laws that discriminate against gay and trans kids.

Cruelty has been prevalent in many of this year’s GOP midterm campaigns. Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Greitens talked of hunting down RINOs (Republicans in name only). "Get a RINO hunting permit," he said in an ad. “There's no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn't expire until we save our country."

A GOP Georgia U.S. Senate candidate, Josh Clark, gave away AR-15 rifles during his primary campaign, and he did a campaign ad that showed him and his family (yes, his children) taking turns firing an AR-15. And we know the cruelty of Florida's “don’t say gay” law, which wipes out books, history, and health information as well as taping the mouths shut of LGBTQ+ students and those with LGBTQ+ family members.

It’s dehumanizing, particularly because DeSantis is using the most vulnerable members of our community as political pawns in his cruel effort to gain the Republican presidential nomination at some point.

Last month, the greedy, obtuse, and hypocritical DeSantis flew into the Massachusetts resort island of Nantucket for a fundraiser where he hobnobbed with the rich and powerful residents who paid anywhere from $2,500 to attend the reception up to $50,000 for a seat at the dinner.

And this month, he flew a plane of unsuspecting, susceptible, and frightened migrants to nearby Martha’s Vineyard, less than 30 miles away from his cash-cow dinner on Nantucket. The 49 migrants were hoodwinked into getting on the plane and told they were going somewhere where people were waiting for them to give them housing and jobs.

When they arrived at the island’s small airport, there was no one there to greet them. Just like the gay children DeSantis viciously uses as campaign props, moving the migrants became a bragging point for DeSantis, who is the epitome of cruelty.

DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have been sending planes to the Northeast, to so-called liberal enclaves like New York City, Washington, D.C. (where they were bused to and dropped in front of the vice president’s residence), and Martha’s Vineyard. Delaware officials are preparing for an anticipated planeload of migrants to be dropped near President Biden’s summer home in Rehoboth Beach.

Sixty years ago, Black Southerners were bused to cities in the Northeast and dropped at the side of roads, by white supremacist groups in what were called "Reverse Freedom Rides.” Does this tactic, this abject cruelty, this vindictive racist deed sound familiar?

Just imagine what kind of person you must be to be so inhumane toward your fellow humans. There’s no difference between DeSantis and the KKK. None. There are thousands of white migrants who seek asylum in the United States each year, fleeing their home countries for the same reasons the Martha's Vineyard migrants left their own countries — oppression, violence, persecution, human rights violations, torture. White asylum seekers aren’t being snookered by deviant politicians like the migrants from South America.

And just imagine what it feels like to be dumped on a tarmac on an unfamiliar island somewhere without any clue as to where you are. Let’s say, God forbid, that you’ve been forced from your home because of flooding, a tornado, a hurricane, and you’ve been forced to a temporary shelter. Someone comes along, plays on your desperation, and promises you utopia if you get on a plane, so you do. The plane lands in the middle of nowhere, on some island, you deplane, and the plane revs up, takes off, and just leaves you there.

How would you feel? What would you do? Who would you turn to? Who would you trust?

When the migrants landed in Martha’s Vineyard, the news was announced with glee by DeSantis, who had the gall to send a photographer with them to record the migrants looking lost and confused as they stood outside the plane. However, when the island’s residents found out what happened, they jumped into action.

I had the opportunity to speak to gay Massachusetts State Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents Martha’s Vineyard and other areas in and around Cape Cod, including Nantucket and Provincetown, and I began by asking him how things stand for those 49 migrants.

“They have received a cadre of services since their arrival,” Cyr told me during a phone call this week. “They are now in Cape Cod at a shelter that has room enough to house them, and they are figuring out how to cobble back their plans on moving forward. It’s important to remember that they were not doing anything illegal. They presented themselves at the border seeking asylum, and neither of [those actions] were in violation of the law in any way.”

To be clear, no one notified you, or anyone else that they were coming? I asked. “No, they did not. They didn’t reach out to anyone at the local level in Martha's Vineyard or anyone else in the state,” Cyr replied.

Cyr called out the cruelty of doing something so merciless. “What’s horrible about DeSantis was how he used this marginalized group so that he could have a press conference and photo op about what he did to these people whose only wish is to create a better life for themselves and their families. In the process of this stunt, he’s denying them the respect and compassion that these people and their families so desperately need at this point in their lives.”

When the migrants arrived, they felt stranded, confused and alone, and according to Cyr, when word got out that the migrants were on the island, residents rushed to help. “The reaction was swift, and what the locals did was deploy an emergency response similar to what would be done for a hurricane or nor’easter,” Cyr explained.

“We were able to provide all types of services that these people needed. For example, a dentist on the island provided dental care. Restaurants provided food. A Spanish teacher brought her AP Spanish class to help translate. It was a moment of collaboration and an all-hands-on-deck mentality.”

What was ironic about the situation, as Cyr pointed out, is that this type of response would most likely occur regardless of where the migrants were sent. “I can’t imagine that if DeSantis sent them to Sanibel Island off the Florida coast that residents there wouldn’t respond any differently than we did. Most people would treat them as human beings, unlike DeSantis and those who support what he’s doing.”

We discussed the fact that Javier Salazar, sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, is opening a criminal investigation into what DeSantis did. I asked Cyr if more investigations will be forthcoming. “I hope so,” he said. “It raises serious questions about the severity of the way these people were treated. All folks are here legally, so this was a violation and interference into federal immigration law. And these folks were falsely imprisoned. One woman told me she felt like she was kidnapped. Not one person I spoke to knew they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard, and they expressed deep confusion about why they were there and where they were supposed to go.”

Cyr said that the migrants are now on a military base on Cape Cod, where they can be better cared for. “They were staying on the island in a parish house temporarily. The islanders wanted them to stay, but the house only had one bathroom, so where they are now is more comfortable,” he said.

As a politician, did Cyr feel like DeSantis's brazen actions went too far? “I would hope so. Most decent people see it for what it is. It was a calculated $600,000 political stunt that exploited asylum seekers who came to this country for an opportunity to live a better life. Yes, our immigration system is broken, and nonborder states play a role, but what DeSantis did doesn’t help the situation,” Cyr said.

“This is yet another calculated tactic from a cynical politician, going after the most vulnerable in our society. Like 'don’t say gay,' it ruins people and threatens lives. I think and I hope that this is a real miscalculation on his part.”

Cyr pointed out that most of the rich and famous people on the island are there during the summer. “The people left on the island during nonseason have an average income of $42,000 a year. One-fourth of the population are students, and most of the work is in travel and hospitality.”

“The island community has increased 20 percent during the last 10 years, mostly driven by immigration, and they are the backbone of the community,” he continued. “There’s a real cynicism since DeSantis flew into Nantucket for his fundraiser where he only mingled with the wealthy. It was a slap in the face to anyone who is trying to do the right thing by working and taking care of their families. That’s why there was such an outpouring of support. The islanders were fighting cruelty with kindness.”

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, EqualPride.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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