Planes carrying 50 migrants from Venezuela and Colombia landed unexpectedly at Martha’s Vineyard Airport Wednesday afternoon. Island officials and volunteers quickly rallied to find temporary shelter for the group.

“We’re immigrants,” Eliase, who said he was from Venezuela, told the Gazette. “We came here because of the situation in our country, for the economy, for work, for lots of things. I came here walking. We went through 10 different countries until we got to Texas. There a refugee association put us in a plane and told us there would be work and housing here. I feel good, despite everything. We spent four days in Texas so it’s good to be here."

Migrants sheltered overnight at St. Andrew's church and the parish house. — Ray Ewing

State Sen. Julian Cyr said the planes originated in San Antonio, Tex., and appeared to be part of a larger campaign to divert migrants from border states.

“Just like the reverse freedom rides in the 1960s, this endeavor is a cruel ruse that is manipulating families who are seeking a better life,” Senator Cyr said. “No one should be capitalizing on the difficult circumstances that these families are in and contorting that for the purposes of a “gotcha” moment.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis later issued a statement to media outlets confirming that the airlift "was part of the state's relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations."

A coalition of emergency management officials, faith groups, nonprofit agencies and county and town officials were organizing food and shelter for the migrants, who spent Wednesday night at St. Andrews Church in Edgartown. The Salvation Army, among others, was providing food.

In a news release Thursday morning, the Martha's Vineyard Humanitarian Response effort asked that inquiries about how to help be sent by email to

State representative Dylan Fernandes (center) has been on the scene. — Ray Ewing

As word spread of the migrants' plight, a crowd of people — many eager to offer assistance — gathered outside the church. Edgartown Police Lt. Chris Dolby urged people not to deliver additional donations.

Speaking outside the parish hall Thursday morning, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes said the situation was under control "with local law enforcement jumping into action."

“People were served breakfast this morning by the parish and served lunch by the school system. We are a community that helps one another and you can see that here,” he said.

Harbor Homes shelter manager Lisa Belcastro, who was overseeing the relief effort at St. Andrew’s, praised the community's outpouring of support.

“We have literally everything we need right now,” she said. “This place is a stopgap — it is not a long term solution. The challenge is at some point we have to move these people…we can’t house anyone here.”

Lisa Belcastro, shelter manager for Harbor Homes, has been helping to organize relief efforts. — Ray Ewing

She continued tearfully: “Every single person has come up and said they want a job; they are not looking for a handout. Some of these people have been through horrific things. They need a break. They need help.”

Ms. Belcastro added that St Augustine’s Church was ready in case another influx of migrants should arrive.

Airport director Geoff Freeman said Thursday morning that the migrants arrived on two planes belonging to the charter company Ultimate Air.

“We thought it was a typical charter,” he said, adding that private planes carrying visitors on corporate and golf retreats are common this time of year.

It wasn’t until the planes touched down that airport personnel discovered they were filled with migrants, he said.

Isaac and his son Banisthelroy. — Ray Ewing

Mr. Freeman said two vans were waiting at the airport and took the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. He did not know who arranged the van transport.

Island officials relocated the passengers to the cafeteria at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, where they were given water bottles and fruit cups. Children were playing with chalk on the sidewalk outside.

“We are all kind of piecing the story together,” said schools superintendent Richie Smith. “We are providing water and food and things like that right now and trying to learn about the situation.”

Sheryl Taylor and Leah Palmer coordinated interpreters at the high school cafeteria.

Islanders of all ages jumped in to help out. — Ray Ewing

Ms. Taylor said most of the passengers appeared to be from Venezuela, but a few said they were from Colombia. 

At an emergency meeting on Zoom, Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Shaeffer said the town of Edgartown would take the lead in housing the migrants overnight. The migrants were later transported by bus to St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown.

Rep. Fernandes, who joined the relief effort at St. Andrew’s Church, said the migrants were pawns in a political game.

"Some of them were told lies…they were told they would receive housing and jobs immediately upon arrival,” he said.

“It’s a humanitarian issue," said Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jonathan Searle. "Right now we’re concerned with coordinating with state and federal officials."

Senator Cyr said Gov. Charlie Baker had activated state emergency management resources and U.S. Rep. Bill Keating was in contact with the Department of Homeland Security.

Regional high school AP Spanish class sent its students to the scene Thursday to help interpret. — Ray Ewing

“There’s a real herculean effort [underway] to make sure that these families have shelter and a roof over their head and a safe place to sleep tonight, and my understanding is that that’s happening. And that’s pretty remarkable, that that’s happening. It’s a real credit to Islanders,” Senator Cyr said.

Chief Searle said local officials were not concerned about the immigration status of the migrants. “That can be decided by the federal authorities," he said. "Some of them haven’t checked in with immigration, some of them explained that they hadn’t checked in with immigration in Texas and that they wanted to so they wouldn’t get in trouble.

"Hopefully they can provide them some long term shelter and we can figure it out," he added.

“They came with folders with a pamphlet with our information,” said Beth Folcarelli, chief executive officer of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. “We don’t have refugee services, I had no idea about any of this. I only found out because one of them gave me their folder. Imagine being dropped in here knowing no one. Absolutely no one. It’s heartbreaking.”

Organizing efforts continued Thursday at the parish hall of St. Andrew's Church. — Ray Ewing

Maria Sanchez Roa is a senior at MVRHS and was called in to help interpret. She was born in Colombia and takes AP Spanish.

“I was home watching Princess Diana videos when my mom burst through the door and told me to go to the high school. I’m here because I’m a Hispanic kid who speaks Spanish.”

Barbara Rush is helping to coordinate efforts at St. Andrew’s Church.

“In a typical Vineyard fashion, it is a community effort,” she said.

Thomas Humphrey and Noah Glasgow contributed reporting.