On the day the Venezuelan migrants landed on Martha’s Vineyard, the city of New Bedford reached out and offered to help.

“New Bedford was the first one to reach out,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “Of 50 that came in, four were school-age children. We said we were willing to take them and their families.”

It didn’t work out. The city was told that after the first couple of days, the authorities had found some place for the kids.

Mitchell says that New Bedford then offered to take “a few” of the remaining adults but that it never heard back. The migrants were temporarily relocated to Joint Base Cape Cod and the mayor said he understands the state has a plan to take them elsewhere.

The city’s offer to help the Venezuelans — who are fleeing a horribly dysfunctional dictatorship — is not the first time the city has stepped up to do its part to accommodate new arrivals to the country. It also volunteered to take Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, although none of the latter arrived.

The city’s offer to help the Venezuelans was one side of the immigration issue in New Bedford this month. The other side was the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement that it had reached a settlement with New Bedford over the school district’s failure to understand that K’iché speakers are not native Spanish speakers.

K’iché is an Indigenous language spoken by the Mayan peoples of Guatemala, who have arrived in New Bedford by the thousands over the last 20 or so years. Their second language is Spanish and English is their third.


Doing the right thing on immigration is complicated, even when a community intends to do the right thing. Wrongful decisions can be made just from the ignorance of cultural assumptions. The mayor said he assumed K’iché is a spoken, not a written language, but he was wrong. One suspects the school system had the same problem, although a spokesman told me the mistake was that the immigrants are used to listing Spanish as their language in their home countries.

In an era when undocumented immigration is said to be tearing the United States apart, both politically and culturally, Mitchell said he does not hear, in his travels around New Bedford, many complaints about the thousands of undocumented immigrants who have now lived in the city for decades. Well, except for on local talk radio — and he said he’s not sure those complaining there are even from New Bedford.

Mitchell said he gets accused by those callers of running “a sanctuary city,” which he views as nonsense as New Bedford has never voted to be a sanctuary city and the label is a term of art, not a legal description.

“I do take seriously that we should hold ourselves out as a welcoming city,” said Mitchell, who is not usually known as the most progressive guy on the block. “We’re all proud of our immigrant roots, no matter how many layers you might be removed.”

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The mayor quickly added that there are topics connected to the country’s failure for decades, at the national level, to enact a workable immigration policy. Matters such as the tax burden, fear of others, and national sovereignty are “hot button issues,” he said.

But he also waxed philosophical a bit and talked about recently watching some of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, which explores America’s unwillingness to allow more than a fraction of the Jews seeking asylum during the Holocaust to enter the country. At that time, he noted that the United States had comparatively low quotas for immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and those strict limits remained in place throughout World War II.

“These issues have long been charged throughout our history,” Mitchell said, stating that although fear of immigrants is common in many countries, there is a uniquely American strain of it.

Venezuelan migrants breakfast on assorted cereals on a Martha's Vineyard porch a day after their arrival on the island, in a photo posted by Rep. Dylan Fernandes. Credit: @RepDylan / Twitter

Immigration is not always an easy issue.

Although New Bedford-area employers — such as the seafood processing houses, landscapers, roofing contractors, farms, recycling businesses and you name it — gladly welcome the low-wages that undocumented immigrants are willing to work for, the city is then faced with higher costs, particularly in providing an adequate public education in the native languages of many of the immigrants

In the New Bedford school system, students speak an astounding 40 different languages.

This is nothing new. The generations of French Candians, Portuguese, Cape Verdeans, Polish, Greek and other immigrants who arrived in New Bedford in the first part of the 20th century all came speaking different languages. At the time, there were not the accommodations for learning in different languages that there are now, and many of those immigrant children were lost in a public school system that failed to teach them adequately. Many of those kids eventually found themselves forever consigned to working in low-wage, some would say exploitative jobs.

It’s different now. The federal and state governments require that the school system provide instruction in a child’s first language until he or she can adequately learn in English. In most cases this just takes a couple of years — young kids in particular are quick language learners. But in some cases, the students do not make progress, and the transition period can take much longer — as much as seven years and more.

The Justice Department’s settlement requires that the school district inform, both orally and in writing, K’iché-speaking parents of New Bedford school children of the available programs to help accommodate their learning.

Why, you may ask, have the Guatemalan and other Central American immigrants come to the city in such great numbers, other than the fact they have found that New Bedford-area employers want them here? Well, the United States has played a role in their arrival.

You may want to read up on the United Fruit Company and the way it bought up land in Central America over the last century, making it next to impossible for subsistence farmers to compete. And you may want to read about the role of the American government, which, fearful that worker unions were a prelude to communism, installed a Guatemalan dictator friendly to United Fruit. The fallout of generations of civil strife has lasted to this day, leaving Guatemala, as well as other countries in Central America, mired in poverty, violence and lack of opportunity.

The mayor said there are currently 161 primarily K’iché speakers in the New Bedford district, or 1.1% of the population. My guess — based on the conventional estimates that there are thousands of Mayan immigrants in the city — is that there are many more children than that who are native K’iché speakers. Even the district acknowledges that some of these children have been classified as Spanish speakers, even though for many of them that is a second language. Mitchell said that he understands the complaint to the Justice Department was brought by some of the city’s activist groups in the Guatemalan community.

New Bedford High School, 2022. Credit: Jack Spillane / Petarenapro

There are presently no K’iché language instructors in the New Bedford school system, perhaps not surprising for an Indigenous language that until recently was not well known in the United States.

“Licensed educators who speak fluent K’iché are scarce,” wrote schools spokesman Arthur Motta to me in a prepared statement.

“Currently the District has three employees who are native K’iché speakers; two are district translators and interpreters, the third is a clerk,” he continued. The district also has a full-time translator from Guatemala and “a virtual platform for Educational Translations and Interpretation” to provide rapid support for principals and staff,” Motta said.

The Justice Department noted that the city had already begun to address some of the communication issues with K’iché parents before the settlement. But it’s fair to note, as the mayor has previously pointed out, that prior to 2013, the city did not even run an English Learner program, which has been built up since then by Dr. Sonia Walmsley. Mitchell became mayor in 2012.

The shortcoming is also an illustration of how complicated things are when cultures clash and the world seems to evolve more and more into a global village every day.

New Bedford government and its school system, at least, is moving in the right direction. It is not part of the reactionary winds over undocumented imigration that are blowing like Hurricane Ian just now.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@petarenapro.com.