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Venezuelan migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard have a strong case for a U Visa

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Been a year since 49 migrants were flown from Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Immigration advocates called it a cruel political stunt, but it has given some a legal advantage in their immigration cases. From member station CAI, Eve Zuckoff introduces us to one of them.

EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: Carlos Luzardo spent seven years as a barber after moving from his home in Venezuela to Colombia. After living through a political crisis and then economic upheaval, he sold his business and decided to move to the U.S.

CARLOS LUZARDO: (Non-English language spoken).

ZUCKOFF: "It was a difficult decision," he says. In the last year, the stocky, gregarious 25-year-old has been slowly building a new client base right in his kitchen in a Boston suburb. To earn more money, he works in a salon, washing hair, waxing eyebrows, talking with people.

LUZARDO: (Non-English language spoken).

ZUCKOFF: He says he'll spend an hour with them fixing them up, and they find him endearing. Luzardo takes home about $600 a month. It's all under the table while he awaits legal work authorization. But he's been able to buy a pair of clippers, nice scissors, and still help support his mother and girlfriend back in South America.

LUZARDO: (Non-English language spoken).

ZUCKOFF: He says he gives a little bit to his family, not the way he wants to, but it helps them. The migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard say they were tricked into boarding planes under a false promise of expedited work papers and housing. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has since taken credit for what he's called a voluntary relocation. Critics call it cruel and say the protest of the Biden administration's immigration policies could be illegal.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: There are at least three investigations going on in their plight.

ZUCKOFF: That's Muzaffar Chishti from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. He says millions of Venezuelans fleeing their homes have filed asylum claims in the U.S. But in a twisted kind of irony, the migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard have much stronger cases than most.

CHISHTI: The sheriff of Texas said there's an investigation about whether these people were criminally abducted to the United States. That's enough predicate for the U Visa.

ZUCKOFF: U Visas are reserved for victims of crimes who help law enforcement in their investigations. And the Martha's Vineyard migrants get to file their claims not in Texas, where they crossed the border and where there are tons of applicants, but Massachusetts.

CHISHTI: A reasonably immigrant-friendly jurisdiction where there's a lot of lawyers support and a lot of political support.

ZUCKOFF: Still, it'll be a long time before Luzardo knows whether he gets the U Visa or asylum. He's applied for both. So he finds himself doing what he can to stay busy. He wakes up early to drink Colombian coffee, takes three buses to work, brings breakfast for his coworkers. They like bread with ham and cheese.

LUZARDO: (Non-English language spoken).

ZUCKOFF: He says he always buys food for everyone. In the evenings, he has English class and therapy. All of this, including the apartment, is made possible by funds and services that were organized by Jewish Family Service. The nonprofit has provided the same to four other migrants, Luzardo's roommate and three more who live next door. To be sure, not all of the 49 migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard have received this much support. Luzardo is grateful for his small community.

LUZARDO: (Through interpreter) Since I've been here, I've been able to figure out many things, things I thought were impossible to overcome. These are not extraordinary accomplishments. But, yes, I feel that I've moved forward a little bit.

ZUCKOFF: But Luzardo doesn't always feel fortunate. By the time he reached the United States, he was desperate, penniless, and processing unspeakable things he'd witnessed on a journey across eight countries. And that was all before, he says, he was duped into signing papers he didn't understand and flown to a place he'd never heard of. Today, he still struggles to trust people and feels deeply lonely.

LUZARDO: (Through interpreter). I can't believe that I'm here - in the United States, I mean. I wake up and ask myself, am I really here? I don't complain about my comforts, about the things here, but I miss my family.

ZUCKOFF: His lawyer expects his work permit will come in the next few months. In the meantime, Luzardo says he plans to keep cutting hair for clients at his new kitchen table.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Zuckoff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eve Zuckoff is WCAI's Report for America reporter, covering the human impacts of climate change.