early and often

‘It Was All a Hoax’

Migrants enter a church on Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Matt Cosby/The New York Times/Redux

This 27-year-old Venezuelan man was one of 50 migrants taken to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio, Texas, under the direction of Florida governor Ron DeSantis. The Republican is currently facing multiple lawsuits claiming he lured the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses and violated Florida law by using state funds to transport them as a means of protesting President Biden’s border policies.

Why I left is no big secret. No one’s making any money in Venezuela. There isn’t enough food. It’s very difficult to care for your children. There are kidnappings, extortion. Someone tried to kill me.

I left my two kids, my wife, my aunts, and my grandmother behind. I decided to leave June 15. I walked until I reached the border with Colombia. It took me two months and 15 days. I rode mules, asked truck drivers for rides, anything to move forward.

In Colombia, I paid a boat $50 to drop me off in the Darién jungle, and there I started my journey toward Panama, walking. We just had to walk and walk and walk. I had three changes of clothes when I started, but I left the jungle with only one and no shoes. Eventually I got to Panama and then Costa Rica, where my brother lives. He helped me get into Nicaragua and then on to Honduras and Guatemala. The journey was hard, but it was also so beautiful and new to me. When you walk through those places, they are gorgeous. There are lots of old buildings, lots of tourists.

When I reached Mexico, I turned myself in to the immigration authorities in Chiapas. They gave me a permit to leave Mexico in 20 days to the border of my choice. I didn’t know that Mexico was so big. The countries I had passed through were nothing; Mexico was seven times bigger than all of them. It took me 12 days of walking to get through Mexico to the border with the United States. It was August 18.

The next day, I got up early and asked someone where the river to the United States was. They told me, and I walked. I filled an inflatable mattress — I had a friend with me who didn’t know how to swim. I dragged him across the border on the mattress.

On the other side, I turned myself in to the U.S. Border Police in Brownsville, Texas. There I breathed easy. I was joyful, happy. I lasted 15 days in detention while they arranged my papers there too. The aluminum blanket they gave me made a funny sound when you moved it. A few of us shared one.

The ICE people gave me papers, told me, “Sign and you’ll be free,” that I had to report on September 28 in Philadelphia.

I went to the bus terminal. I lasted there four days. There was a lady who gave us breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, thank God. She helped some of us with the fare to San Antonio. At the terminal, there were some girls in blue vests who took us to a free shelter, but they offered us only three days of lodging. I started sleeping outside the shelter near a McDonald’s. I still hadn’t made enough money for the ticket to go to Philadelphia. My only goal was to show up on September 28 for my immigration hearing.

Then, on September 8 — Thursday — a lady named Perla appeared. She said she could take 50 people to sanctuary states. She wore cowboy boots and had highlights in her hair. She spoke English and Spanish. They said they would give us work and housing for 90 days. And the migration papers, she said she was going to change it herself. She said she would change the address to where we were going to be taken.

Of course we said yes. But that day she didn’t take anybody, so we were left wondering. Then on the 10th, a Saturday, at half past two in the afternoon, Perla came back with two vans. Everything was done behind the McDonald’s. She took us to a hotel, and during the course of the weekend, she started to bring more people, until she’d picked up 50 people.

On Wednesday, we left at 5:30 in the morning. Perla told us we were going to Massachusetts, to Boston. I thought, Well, I’ll be six hours away from Philadelphia. Perla said, “Don’t worry, I will arrange everything for you. You’re going to make your court date in Philadelphia.” She formed two groups because there were two airplanes. They were small, exclusive private planes. Onboard, they gave us cookies, soft drinks. The flight attendant was very attentive.

Everyone was kind to us because it was all a hoax. When we landed in Martha’s Vineyard, there was a black van waiting for us. The van took us to a house and the driver said, “There’s a doorbell. Ring it. They are waiting for you there.” When we rang the doorbell, a lady came out, and we told her, “Here we are. We’ve arrived.” The lady asked, “Who are you?” and we told her, “The gentleman brought us. He said to ring the doorbell.” But when we turned around, the black van was gone.

We told the lady, “We’re from Venezuela. We came from Mrs. Perla.” We were terrified. We thought they would take us to jail or deport us. Many of us cried.

On the plane, they had given us some red folders with a map, and we looked at the map and realized that we were surrounded by sea, that we were on an island. There was no bridge; there was nothing. How do we get out of here? Do we have to leave by ferry or in a private plane like we got here? We were so scared. Then a gentleman came out speaking Spanish. He told us that we should not worry, that they were going to look for a solution.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, but the weather was cold. I didn’t have a sweater; I didn’t have a coat. They took us to a school, where they gave us food, and then they took us to a church in the center of town — the center of the island, I imagine.

We slept in the church that night. Some slept on mattresses on the floor and some in bed. I preferred the floor. If those people hadn’t offered us their hearts … We didn’t know where we were. I’m so thankful to those people on Martha’s Vineyard who reached out to us and treated us like their family.

They moved my case to Massachusetts, but I haven’t gotten a date yet, so I’m still waiting. Everything is close by. Why go anywhere else when this place is brimming with opportunity?

I want a normal life. In Venezuela, I did painting and construction, but I’ve worked a little bit of everything. What I’d really like is to be able to study. Maybe some electrician and construction classes but first English. Some people here have helped me with that. Even as just a distraction.

This conversation has been translated from Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity.

‘It Was All a Hoax’: Migrant Deceived by DeSantis Speaks