Playing politics with peoples’ lives

Documentary “Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” premieres near the anniversary of Venezuelan migrants' journey to the Island.


“Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” is a must-see film about the debacle a year ago and the excellent way our community — and those outside of it — helped us rally around the 49 Venezuelan migrants whom Florida Governor Ron DeSantis illegally sent from Texas to our shores in a stunt that fueled a political and media firestorm.

The riveting 45-minute film, which will premiere at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Sept. 16, was produced for MSNBC Films and superbly directed by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, who have summered on the Vineyard for 40 years. The two skillfully interweave multiple perspectives while anchoring the story through the personal lens of four young migrant cousins who have returned to live and work on the Island. Davis said in a phone interview, “We wanted to create a tension between the very personal humanity in the warmth and grace of the four cousins and their harrowing journey and slam that against the cold-blooded political reality of how they were used.”

The comments by the four young Venezuelans bring an intensity to the narrative that could get lost when speaking about them as a group of 49. There is Eliud speaking about arriving on the Island, “I won’t deny it; in one corner, I started to cry because I felt frustrated with what was happening. Not knowing where we were going to be…We didn’t know anything. Those people completely tricked us.” They recount harrowing details of what they endured on the long journey, which, accompanied by their cell phone footage, astounds you with their courage and what they went through in the hopes of a better life.

Others featured in the film include Vineyarders Geany Rolanti, clinical quality manager at Island Counseling Center, and Lisa Belcastro, shelter director for Harbor Homes, who were on the ground from the very beginning of the migrants’ experience on the Island. “The thing that I come back to is how inspirational all the Venezuelans were,” Belcastro recalls in a recent phone interview. “Whenever I’m having a bad day or feeling down, I remind myself of their journey and how they never gave up hope. They kept taking the next step and the next step. I say, okay, snap out of it, and be grateful. Their incredible faith and hope to pursue a better life — essentially to risk their lives for that better life. You can read biographies and autobiographies about incredible stories, but when you see it face to face, it changes your life.”

We also see Mike Benjamin and his wife, Sandy Stone, welcoming the four returning young cousins into their cottage rental last fall, where they stayed until this May while securing housing and jobs. “I was very sympathetic to their story. And I felt, this is cool, I can help these people,” Benjamin says. “They were so relieved that they had a place to hang their hat and where they felt safe. I was very happy to offer them a little bit of hope and security in that moment.”

Heilbroner and Davis use stirring and informative interviews to provide insight into the larger legal situation. There is immigration attorney Rachel Self from the Vineyard, executive director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, and San Antonio sheriff Javier Salazar, who are leading the charge to hold DeSantis and his accomplices accountable. The directors also use right-wing media coverage to exemplify DeSantis’ plot to use migrants as political pawns and its demonization of the left.

Belcastro expressed the need for this film and others to raise public awareness of the state of immigration in our country and the desperate need for change. “Most of us have ancestors who came from somewhere else and immigrated to the United States,” she said. “We have to do a better job of seeing the reasons why people are fleeing. No one leaves a home where they’re well fed, well taken care of, in a safe place to make treacherous journeys across oceans, rivers, and countries because they feel safe and secure.” She doesn’t think the United States can solve all the problems of the world but added, “I want people to be more aware of the changes that need to happen and to use their voice. It is astounding to me that we let people in legally and then tell them they can’t work and make them a burden on the system.”

“Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” is both an intelligent and poignant film that accomplishes precisely what Heilbroner hoped. “I want people to understand the humanity of the folks enmeshed in a nasty political game that was conducted entirely for the political benefit of Ron DeSantis. There was absolutely no reason for him to do what he did. And I want people to understand that these political games have human consequences. If they come away outraged and enlightened about the true cost of this political gamesmanship, then I feel like we did our job.”

Martha’s Vineyard Film Society and Circus Arts will co-present the world premiere of “Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” on Saturday, Sept. 16, at 7:30 pm, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. A second screening was added on Sunday, Sept. 17, at 4 pm. The screenings will be followed by a discussion moderated by Vineyard resident and journalist Charlie Sennott with lead attorneys Rachel Self and Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Massachusetts State Representative Dylan Fernandes, and shelter director for Harbor Homes Lisa Belcastro, along with the four Venezuelan cousins from the film.



  1. We live on Martha’s Vineyard. People here clap themselves on the back for treating less than five dozen refugees with human decency for 48 hrs before they were shipped off to the Cape. The one or two households that are still here? La di da, gee, wow, Martha’s Vineyard is so special! The Vineyard would suffer from the same, but no one here would admit it. We can’t even house “our own.”

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