In a panel discussion following a sold-out second-night screening of “Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, panelist and immigration attorney Rachel Self shared that the criminal investigation in connection with the 49 migrants has concluded, and that the district attorney from Bexar County, Texas, will present the case to a grand jury in the coming weeks.
“What it means, ultimately, is if the grand jury presents indictments, if people get indicted, then criminal charges will be filed against the perpetrators of the criminal acts, and a criminal case proceeds,” said Self. This news arose after all investigative and forensic interviews of the 49 victims in the case were translated and transcribed by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, according to Self.
Self confirmed that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement on Friday, Sept. 15, the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month, saying they have concluded their investigations, and are now waiting for deliberation from a grand jury to learn if a felony offense has been committed.
“This was not a case that was a rush to judgment, this was a case in which, due to the incredible media lens, the incredible scrutiny, and the incredible mischaracterization that can happen with the media these days, that law enforcement officials wanted to be sure that every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed. It is now in the hands of the prosecutor’s office and Joe Gonzalez down in Bexar County,” Self said in a public comment on the panel following the screening.
Self also shared a message from Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who filed a criminal case with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office last September after the migrants were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard: “Please let people know there’s a sheriff in Texas that fights for everybody.” The migrants crossed the border and found themselves in Bexar County, Texas, after fleeing from economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.
The film, which had its public premiere Saturday evening at the Film Center in Vineyard Haven, included an after-screening panel with the filmmakers, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, and others involved in the migrants’ legal cases and stay on the Island. Immigration attorney and Islander Rachel Self, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, and Islander Lisa Belcastro of Harbor Homes were part of the panel, with plenty of shout-outs to other community members who provided aid. Saturday night’s screening also featured State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, as one of the members of the panel. The panel was moderated by Islander and journalist Charles Sennott, founder and editor-in-chief of the Ground Truth Project.
Conversation ensued for about 45 minutes after the screening, where Espinoza-Madrigal and Belcastro also shared their thoughts on the situation. “Within three days of their arrival, we filed a federal class action against DeSantis and against co-conspirators,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. He commented on the unprecedented nature of the case, citing DeSantis’ efforts to get the case dismissed or transferred to his own state of Florida: “We have been fighting tooth and nail to make sure that our clients, the Martha’s Vineyard migrants, can have their day in court.”
“I fully expect the federal court in Boston to have a hearing within a matter of weeks,” said Espinoza-Madrigal.
Both the immigration process and the criminal processes have been long and drawn-out — which is not atypical. Self and Espinoza-Madrigal highlighted the barriers to entry and to legal work, even for migrants fleeing countries for their own safety.
Self explained that unauthorized work is the only option for many migrants that find themselves in a similar situation to that of the Martha’s Vineyard migrants, and that unauthorized work is ultimately forgiven from a legal standpoint when the time comes.
Of the four migrants who have been able to remain on the Island, Self said they are working the odd jobs they can find in construction, landscaping, and roofing, for example. “They’re doing the things that we typically associate with the newcomers who come to this country,” said Self.
She urged the public to recall that immigrants made up a large part of the essential work force at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing services like grocery shopping and delivery, and filling critical staffing roles at hospitals and other places in an economy that desperately needs workers in every sector. Espinoza-Madrigal agreed, commenting on the critical role immigrants play in the U.S. economy, workforce, and communities. “This idea of thinking immigration is disconnected from the economy, disconnected from the way that our workplaces operate and communities function — we need to demystify that.”
“One of the things to never forget about this particular class of people [is that] none of them want a handout,” said Self. “None of them are asking for services, benefits, or social programs; they just want to be able to lawfully provide for themselves, and they want to be providing for the people they left behind in their country.”
An audience member asked about the possibility of sponsoring family members of the migrants still living in Venezuela.
In order for migrants to sponsor family members and bring them to the U.S., the sponsor must be able to demonstrate a certain level of income and ensure that the person they’re bringing here will not become a public charge, as in they will remain the financial responsibility of the sponsor. According to Self, there are 30,000 visas available each month to bring sponsored family members of migrants to the U.S. Self encouraged anyone interested in becoming a sponsor to contact her.
Belcastro made an emotional testament to the efforts of the Island community, and to the plight of the migrants: “We are all immigrants. Unless you were born into the Wampanoag tribe on this Island, we are all immigrants.”
“We’ll never know what it’s like to have to flee a country, as our Venezuelan friends did,” said Belcastro. “They didn’t ask to come to Martha’s Vineyard. Most people, they ask to come here, they want to come here. But they arrived here dazed and confused, hurt and betrayed. Everyone wanted to help, and love won,” Belcastro said. “This Island community pulled together. It was the community it is every single day, only on steroids. If you wanted to see love, you needed to be on the corner of Summer and Winter [streets] last year in September.”
Kate Davis and David Heilbroner are Oscar-nominated filmmakers and longtime Vineyard residents. They have collaborated on numerous social justice films and have won two Peabody Awards, an Emmy, and the NAACP Image Award, among others. “Martha’s Vineyard v. DeSantis” is a 45-minute documentary film executive-produced by Trevor Noah, produced for and sponsored by MSNBC Films. It is set to premiere on MSNBC and Peacock in October. The weekend’s screening was co-presented by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society and Circuit Arts.
“If there’s any lesson people could take home from this film, it’s to fight back. We are at a tipping point in our democracy,” said Heilbroner. “It started out as a small story, but Kate and I quickly realized it contains issues of national moment.”
Davis added that as with any documentary project, they couldn’t know how it would play out in the end. She felt the film accomplished her one true goal in filmmaking: “To open people’s hearts to people they’d otherwise never know. To humanize those in the news who are often just categorized as ‘the other,’” said Davis. She commended the four migrants who participated and were featured in the film. “That took bravery on their parts,” Davis said. “They didn’t ask for this.”