Review: What Martha’s Vineyard Tells Us About Immigration

Editor’s note: Daniela Gerson is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge and former community engagement editor for the Los Angeles Times. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Wednesday night dispatch of two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard isn’t the first time the nation’s immigration battle has brought the elite summer destination.

This island off the coast of Massachusetts is more accustomed to welcoming the arrival of South Americans than many parts of the United States. Not Venezuelans, but Brazilians. And it is not unrelated asylum seekers who have fallen from the sky, but migrant workers who follow friends and relatives in various countries.

Indeed, for decades Martha’s Vineyard has been a microcosm of our national hypocrisy when it comes to immigration laws, violations that cut across party lines. It has also been a story about what immigrants contribute to communities when given the chance.

Descending into cruel political expedients diverts our broken immigration system from being a non-partisan issue. It is one of America. And what Congress has failed to act on for decades.

Our laws do not reflect the reality of our labor needs, nor our humanitarian aspirations. Consigning asylum seekers to an island they didn’t choose to go to and which is unprepared for their arrival is not only cruel, but also distracts from the hard work of finding solutions to a wider patchwork system riddled 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 painted houses, made beds and partied, thousands of Brazilians began arriving in the 1990s, ready to work hard and reliably show up in the morning. By 2007, about 1 in 3 children born on the island had a Brazilian mother, according to Massachusetts health data.

I discovered the thriving Brazilian population of the island from one man, Lyndon Johnson Pereira. In 1986, he left a small rural town in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and found a job washing dishes in a bakery in Boston.

Then a client offered to help open a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. Walking from a boat on a gray December day, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to come to the deserted island.

But in June 1987, when Pereira turned 24 and took a day off to go fishing with his boss, he discovered the charm of summer on Martha’s Vineyard. “The birthday was different from all the others, he lived on an island where I am the only Brazilian,” he wrote home. “In the summer it is a land full of millionaires, full of artists and actors. It’s a beautiful island, and I hope to make good money this summer, so I can go back as soon as possible.’

It took Pereira a year and a half to earn enough to return home. But it led to the island’s first significant influx of immigration since the Portuguese more than a century earlier. And while he left, not many who followed him. By 2009, local leaders told me they estimated that around 3,000 of the year-round population of 15,000 were Brazilian.

Many Brazilian immigrants arriving on the island entered the United States through the southern Mexican border, crossing illegally. Others overstayed their tourist visas. Not all of them were undocumented, but community leaders told me at the time that they thought most of them lacked legal status.

All the summer residents, world leaders, movie stars and day trip tourists from Boston who came to enjoy the island benefited from their work. I concluded my report that President Barack Obama would visit in the summer of 2009, play golf and dine at places stocked with Brazilians. (He still hadn’t bought his $11.75 million property on the island.)

“When the summer ends, the president will return to Washington and face a busy agenda,” I wrote, “where he won’t get a mandated overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, at least now delayed until 2010.”

It will be years before a US leader can even imagine having the political will and congressional support to push for immigration reform.

Meanwhile, a generation of Brazilian children has grown up as an island. There are marriages between immigrants and residents whose families go back generations in the United States.

Brazilians have adapted to the culture of the island, and have contributed to it. Current U.S. census data identifies fewer than 1,000 Brazilian-born residents in the entire year, but that number is likely much higher because immigrants tend to be undercounted. Who can become US citizens. Portuguese is offered at the regional high school. All major island industries include Brazilian-owned businesses: construction, ship repair, gardening, restaurants, cleaning, transportation, and technology.

When the news breaks with the last migrants thrown onto the island, members of the Brazilian community wanted to help. While some wondered how these newcomers would find housing when there was a shortage on the island, others offered their homes.

On the Brazukada Facebook page, a group with more than 10,000 members where the Brazilian community shares news and advice, one woman’s message in Portuguese was a common response: “Today I thank God so much that I have all this family of mine. needs. I want to help these people who arrived here on the island yesterday.’

After a frantic day and night, the mostly Venezuelan group was taken to a military base on Cape Cod on Friday morning. Despite an outpouring of financial and material support, Martha’s Vineyard was unable to provide the support these migrants needed. The island has no shelter facility or immigration court, and some migrants had court dates as far away from Washington state as early as Monday, according to immigration attorney Rachel Self.

At the beginning of a long and complex legal process, it is not clear where these migrants will arrive. But the Brazilians of Martha’s Vineyard will remain on the island they have made their home.