Local support for migrants at Joint Base Cape Cod continues

By Maeve Lawler, Kasteel Well Bureau Chief

The wave of community-based support in response to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ relocation of nearly 50 migrants from San Antonio, TX, to Martha’s Vineyard last month continues even after the migrants’ departure. 

The migrants arrived on the island on Sept. 14 after being convinced by a woman identified as Perla Huerta, a former medic and counterintelligence officer in the Army, to board airplanes with the promise of free flights and jobs upon arrival in Massachusetts, according to a New York Times article.

A few days later, migrants were ferried to Joint Base Cape Cod in Barnstable County, MA. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced that shelter and humanitarian services would be provided for the migrants at the base on Sept. 16. Local organizations, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and members of the state’s National Guard coordinated efforts to provide aid. The migrants left the base on Oct. 8, many of them finding housing in other parts of the state.  

This unprecedented arrival of migrants is a small glimpse at a larger issue in Massachusetts. Many aid groups in Boston are overwhelmed with an influx of asylum-seekers—in recent months, thousands have come to the Boston area from countries including Venezuela, Peru, and Colombia, fleeing political violence and instability while searching for work and safety.

Two Cape Cod organizations, the Housing Assistance Corporation and Cape Cod Community College, volunteered their services to aid migrants on the base. 

While on the base, HAC aided the migrants in finding housing and resources once established at a new location. 

“We provided what we already provide for clients who walk through our door on a normal basis,” said HAC Chief External Affairs Officer Stefanie Coxe.“It was just scaled up for this volume.”

HAC received a call from the state notifying them of the migrants’ transition to Cape Cod early on. Members from HAC greeted them as they arrived at the base, along with representatives from Father Bill’s & MainSpring, MEMA, and the Department of Housing and Community Development, according to an HAC press release.

According to Coxe, Father Bill’s & MainSpring—a non-profit working to prevent homelessness in Southern Massachusetts—took a lead role in facilitating aid from local organizations. MEMA Acting Director Dawn Brantley said Father Bill’s & MainSpring representatives brought “tremendous expertise and compassion” to the situation, per an Oct. 4 press release.

HAC focused on connecting migrants with their family members living in other parts of the state or country. 

“In that case, it was figuring out ‘What’s the best way to get you there? What are your options once you get there?’” Coxe said. 

According to Coxe, this triaging of needs is a core part of HAC’s operation.

“We really run the gambit of helping people, from homelessness to homeownership, and helping them figure out what housing resources are available to them,” Coxe said. 

To respond better to unprecedented situations like this in the future, HAC launched a Humanitarian Response Fund and Volunteer Coordination initiative.

“There’s not necessarily an existing program that works for the population you’re serving in an emergency,” Coxe said. “The state or federal rules around whatever existing programs we administer are just not flexible enough to work for whatever that emergency may be.”

The migrants’ unexpected arrival didn’t change HAC’s approach to providing services, but instead reinforced how they operate in response to unprecedented situations. In the past, HAC has responded to various emergencies, including assisting New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, supporting residents who lost their jobs in the pandemic, and most recently, helping Afghan and Haitian refugees amidst a housing shortage.

“We experienced this a number of times already and had such a vast experience doing it, but I think we provided some good modeling of how it could be approached from [Massachusetts’] perspective in the future,” Coxe said. “As an organization that has been around for nearly 50 years, this is not the first time we’ve had a situation like this.”

Another local source of aid came from Cape Cod Community College. Immediately, the college reached out to Dukes County Emergency Management and Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools offering to assist through the 4Cs Adult Education Center and English as a Second Language program, according to a college-wide email from the college’s president, John Cox. When the migrants were transported to the base, the 4Cs’ offer remained standing. 

John Hanlon, a coordinator for the Adult College Transitions Program, said 4Cs offers two free programs split into two phases. First, the Adult Education Center provides ESL and High School Equivalency Tests. Once HISET courses are complete, students have the option to take five free credit classes at the college through the Program for Adult College Transitions.

As the Adult Education Center has a waitlist of nearly 300 prospective students, 4Cs did not offer to enroll migrants directly. However, many students and employees of the program volunteered their time to serve as translators and provide other language services, according to Joan Gallagher, the director of the Adult Education Center. 

“We have… a number of students who have been very interested to help and assist, and a number of instructors who are multilingual and willing to provide any kind of support—especially translation services,” Gallagher said. “I have students coming to me saying, ‘What can we do?”

Many students at the Adult Education Center and in the Program for Adult College Transitions are immigrants, who at one time sought out some of the same needs as those at the base. 

“We have a great passion here for helping those who need to be helped,” Gallagher said. 

Due to the migrants’ short stay at the base, none were enrolled in Hanlon or Gallagher’s program. Still, both programs made it clear their employees continue to do community outreach to promote their services and that the offer to aid migrants in need of language services still stands. 

“If people are coming from other countries and they want to pursue higher education or they need a high school diploma to get a better job here, we [accept] people on a rolling admission,” Hanlon said. “We can definitely accommodate them.”

Most of the migrants have now found housing across Massachusetts in places like Brockton, Lowell, Stoughton, Provincetown, other areas on Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard. Migrants are also eligible to apply for “U visas,” as they are victims of a crime and actively assisting an investigation, according to Rachel Self, a Martha’s Vineyard lawyer who spoke to The Boston Globe.

“I think it’s really important to know that there are a lot of good people—good people who really stepped up,” Gallagher said. “[Cape Cod] has a rather large immigrant population and so people take care of one another, and they’re very respectful of one another’s needs.”