An underage migrant boards a bus to the ferry that will take her and dozens of others from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod. (Dominic Chavez for The Washington Post)
8 min

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — Earlier this month, Eliomar Aguero swam across the border separating the United States and Mexico with seven other people. The 30-year-old had been traveling for two months from Venezuela through 11 other countries by foot, bus and train.

Around the same time, Katrina Lima, 42, a real estate agent on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, was in the thick of her normal routine: running, work, dinners with friends. She was looking forward to the fall, a time when the vacation crowds thin and the island becomes even more luminous.

This week, these two lives intersected in an improbable chapter in America’s bitter debate over immigration. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) chartered two planes to fly a group of migrants from Texas to this small island in Massachusetts, which serves as a summer retreat for the liberal elite.

The point, he and other Republican officials have said, was to draw attention to rising numbers of migrant arrivals and make Democratic-led states share the burden of caring for them. Democrats decried the flights as a stunt that used human beings as political pawns.

But for Aguero and Lima, the political fights were far away. He never imagined he might end up in a place like Martha’s Vineyard. Lima never expected that such desperate journeys would lead to her island, but when they did, she jumped in to help.

Later, some of the migrants would tell her it turned out to be un golpe de buena suerte — a stroke of good luck — that they had landed there.

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On Friday morning, Lima helped tick off names as the nearly 50 migrants boarded buses that would take them from the church where they had spent two nights to a ferry bound for the mainland. From there, they would be transported to a military base on Cape Cod.

They now had full bags and new cellphones. Many wore purple long-sleeved shirts from Martha’s Vineyard High School. As the migrants said goodbye to the local volunteers who had provided them with food and shelter, many in the group cried. Watching them leave, Lima cried too.

“You just hope that they land where they’re supposed to,” she said. “And that they encounter good people along the way.”

Aguero made a peace sign with his fingers as he boarded the bus. “Thank you all,” he said in Spanish. “Without these people here, I don’t know where we’d be.”

He had awakened before 7 that morning, his second full night of sleep after weeks of getting little. After the initial shock of landing not in Boston, Washington, D.C., or New York, as most of the migrants had expected, Aguero began to relax. The island was beautiful, he was safe and so was his wife, Maria. After two months of danger, he could breathe.

Aguero spent his life in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. The economic crisis and political unrest gripping the country pushed nearly the entire population into poverty, including his family. Millions have fled. Aguero, too, began searching for a way out.

There was one, but it was dangerous. Aguero and his wife left Venezuela in July hoping to reach the United States. For weeks, they had nowhere to sleep. At one point, they were sent from Chile back to Colombia. From there, they traveled through all of Central America. Finally, after riding a notoriously dangerous train through Mexico, they reached the Rio Grande.

He and Maria knew how to swim and believed they would make it across. They tied themselves together with others in the group, entered the murky waters and made it safely to land. They were now in the United States, but didn’t have money, clothes or a phone.

Aguero and his wife were eventually taken by immigration agents to San Antonio, where they were reunited with Aguero’s 23-year-old brother Rafael, who had begun his journey northward a few weeks earlier. The couple spent 72 hours in a migrant aid center before being put out on the street, where they joined Rafael, who was scraping together cash to buy food by working whatever odd jobs he could find.

A blond-haired woman approached the trio on the streets of San Antonio and introduced herself as “Perla.” She asked if they needed help. She offered them a hotel room while she made plans to take them elsewhere. Days later, Aguero, Maria and Rafael boarded a plane to an unknown destination.

He only found out where they were going when the pilot came over the loudspeaker announcing they would soon arrive on Martha’s Vineyard.

A call for help

When Aguero’s plane was landing, Lima was in front of her computer for an afternoon full of email correspondence, followed by a Zoom meeting. When the meeting was over, she dashed out the door to meet a group of friends for dinner at 19 Raw, an oyster bar in nearby Edgartown.

Lima was born in New York to Bolivian immigrant parents. When she was growing up, her family sometimes spent vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. Lima’s elder sister, a chef, later settled there, as did Lima, joining a community of about 20,000 year-round residents. Seven years ago, she began volunteering with the local homeless shelter.

As dinner wrapped up, Lima finally checked her phone. She saw text messages asking if she was able to help interpret for a group of migrants who had arrived at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which was just around the corner from the restaurant.

She went straight over. The volunteer effort was in full swing. The first man she spoke with began telling her his story. He had walked most of the way through Central America. He rode a freight train infamous for danger and violence — known as La Bestia — through Mexico. He faced hunger and corrupt officials and gangs.

That first night was spent trying to reassure people who didn’t understand where they were, Lima said. She tried to let them know they were in good hands, but also that they were free to go if they wished.

She was back the following morning at 6:30. It didn’t matter that she had to work to do — she wanted to show the migrants that they were welcome. She spent the next 15 hours there, helping manage a stream of volunteers, donors and reporters. She started making an Excel spreadsheet of what people had offered to donate: blankets, spare rooms, books, diapers, legal help, therapy.

In the evening, she pulled up an empty gray foldable chair next to her and invited the migrants to talk about what they’d gone through. She heard about people getting robbed and tricked and watching their friends struggle to survive. So many had started the journey with more people. Some were kidnapped or drowned or died of dehydration.

Since the moment she heard about the arrival of the migrants, Lima had been in a whir of motion. “Then you have moments when you’re hearing the stories,” she said. Those are “moments where your heart stops.”

Another journey

Friday morning began with breakfast provided by a nearby golf course. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) had arranged for voluntary transportation to Joint Base Cape Cod, a military base that is designated as an emergency shelter. The state has said it will provide the migrants with food as well as access to health care and legal help.

Lima had spoken only briefly to Aguero and his family. On Friday, she noted his name as he approached the bus and hugged him. She spent the rest of the morning helping to clean up the church — stripping beds, emptying the fridge, picking up bottles of water. By early afternoon she was back home and opening her laptop.

Aguero stepped on to the bus. Clutched tightly in his hand was a new cellphone provided by a local social services organization. Less than a half-hour later, the buses arrived at the Vineyard Haven port. The sky was a clear blue and the water was dotted with sailboats. “This is beautiful,” Aguero said, pointing to the harbor.

On the ferry to the mainland, Aguero and his brother were in high spirits, making videos as the boat skimmed across the water. The two brothers stood side-by-side and looked out to the sea.

The waters now seemed friendlier than they did when Aguero had landed at the airport two days earlier. He still didn’t know exactly where they were going. Some of his fellow migrants had learned from volunteers that they would be staying on a military base. They didn’t know what that would mean, how long they would stay there or how safe they would be. On their long journeys to the United States, military officials had not always been friendly.

Aguero wasn’t nervous about what was next, he said, because he was in America. Even with all the confusion of the past few days, everything would work out.

Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Edgartown, Mass. Slater reported from Williamstown, Mass.