Some of the asylum seekers duped into boarding airplanes that eventually landed at Martha’s Vineyard Airport suffered injuries on the long journey to and over the U.S. border with Mexico. One man was reportedly tortured along the way.
Sergio Racig, an immigrant from South America who has gained his U.S. citizenship, volunteered at St. Andrews Church Wednesday evening and spent the night with a group of refugee men he described as being in their 20s and 30s. The men were tired, uncertain of what was next, and eager to work, Racig said.
“What they had to go through is horrible,” Racig said of their trek to the United States.
One man, he said, was taken away in an ambulance due to injuries he suffered at the hands of Mexican gangsters, Racig said.
“So he told me that he was kidnapped in Mexico,” Racig said. “The cartels kidnapped him and he was tortured. He didn’t say why. But it was really sad. That’s why they called in the ambulance to treat him. He had a broken jaw, missing teeth, he was cut…”
Racig said the man had difficulty sleeping and eating.
Racig also said he received psychological support through an interpreter.
“He was broken,” Racig said. “He was crying.”
Lisa Belcastro of Harbor Homes, a volunteer like Racig, said she mustered the ambulance for the man who ultimately received X-rays and hospital care.
Belcastro expressed disgust at not only the political scheme the migrants were caught up in but at what she called the “inhumanity” of those planners, especially in relation to the tortured man — that they “did not see to his healthcare needs.”
Racig emphasized the journey people take to get out of South and Central America is full of threats: gangsters, rapists, deserts, even the Rio Grande.
Racig said it’s a very lucrative criminal enterprise to prey on migrants, second only to the drug trade. He also said if cartels don’t get paid for passage over the border, it can mean death.
“Sometimes you find a group of 50 people dead because they are not paying,” he said.
Chappaquiddick attorney Rachel Self, who is part of a team of attorneys working on behalf of the asylum seekers, said there are both dangers at home and dangers on the road for these people.
“It is not at all uncommon when people make the journey to get here [that] they are fleeing extreme violence, they are fleeing tortuous conditions,” Self said. “There’s a reason people on foot decide it’s time to start walking through ten countries to seek safety.”
Along the way, Self said they present a “very ripe opportunity” for criminals.
“The issue is much more complex than we believe,” Racig said. “The issue doesn’t start on our border, on the US border, the issue starts in their own countries, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia.” Racig added they leave because they have “no future” there.
J. Larkin Stallings, who along with his wife Jackie Stallings, a fluent Spanish speaker, volunteered at the church during the asylum seekers stay, said he and Jackie made “very personal and meaningful connections.”
However wonderful the asylum seekers were, Larkin noted there were dark undertones stemming from their journeys and how they had been treated.
Larkin said his wife worked with women who had “pictures of dead bodies stuck in mud” and had seen “things that most human beings don’t encounter.”
Belcastro said somewhere along the journey, some people appear to have perished in mudslides.
Larkin said the volunteers brought in professionals and did medical assessments of the asylum seekers — ”something Texas didn’t bother with.”
He said the man who’d been tortured and had his teeth pulled out had a “horribly” broken jaw and was in “extreme pain.’
During their journey, Larkin said, some men jumped a train coming out of Guatemala. One man who jumped on the train got a bolt through his leg, he said. He had a visible scar and a probable bone break and wore a brace.
“He didn’t want treatment,” Larkin said.
Along with the man with the broken jaw, another person taken to the hospital was a feverish child. “We had a young child who was presenting with a really bad fever, “ he said. The child tested negative for COVID, as did all the migrants and refugees. One of the cast or production staff from Burning Patience, who he said had also come to volunteer, went to the hospital with the child where the fever was suppressed and antibiotics were administered.
Larkin said he later saw the child back and playing.
Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer confirmed two people were transported from the church during the stay of the asylum seekers, one for an “illness” and one for “injuries sustained prior to their arrival.” Chief Schaeffer said he was unable to elaborate more.
Larkin said the journey these folks take is beyond everyday comprehension.
“I do think there’s any way for us, those who haven’t been in that situation, to really comprehend how arduous we’re talking about,” he said. “What would drive you to go on maybe a 50/50 bet that you could make it — a 1,000 mile trek on foot — knowing that there were bandits and cartels and all the things that you knew would be along the way. And you had to go through the swamps of friggin Panama — how bad would it have to be in your home to make that trip? That’s an honest question that all of us have to ask ourselves. Because the reality is it would have to be pretty god damn bad, right?”
Larkin went on to say, “that was not a decision made lightly by these folks — these are people who made life and death choices because the options to stay were—death.”
Racig said it weighed on the asylum seekers the first night that they had no idea what was next or where they were going.
“I think that was the worst part,” he said. “Nobody knew. And we didn’t know. They didn’t know.”
Racig said the whole episode spoke of a terribly broken immigration system.
“These are some really beautiful, beautiful human beings and were treated so badly and were so disappointed that what they were told in Texas turned out not to be true,” Larkin said.
He emphasized they really wanted to go to work.
“When they finally caught on that they’d been played, the look in their eyes was heartbreaking,” he said.