Rachel Self (right), seen outside St. Andrew’s church in Edgartown in September, said the Venezuelans are victims of a political stunt.

Ray Ewing


Rachel Self Help

The Chappaquiddick-based attorney isn’t done assisting Venezuelan migrants transported to the Vineyard.

For immigration attorney Rachel Self, the Island has long been a place of refuge, a restful home base to return to within a busy schedule of traveling, trying cases, and seeing clients in her Boston-based practice.

But when she learned in September that forty-nine Venezuelan men, women, and children had arrived at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport – seemingly with little understanding of where they were or why they were there – she knew right away that her quiet Island oasis was about to become the center of a complex narrative. And with decades of professional experience as well as a deep understanding of the Vineyard, she was uniquely poised to help both the migrants and the Island groups and resources initially caught off guard by their surprise arrival.

Here, attorney Self talks to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about her family home on Chappaquiddick, an improved commute, and why the developments of these last few months – though they’ve hit closer-to-home than usual – have been, in many ways, par for the course.

MVM: You live full time on Chappy, and you’re the first year-round resident to live at Cape Pogue since there was a lighthouse keeper in the 1940s. What brought you to the actual end of the earth?

Rachel Self: I moved here full time in 2012. I grew up summering here; my grandfather bought land in the 1940s and ultimately, after a big life change, I decided that I could live here full time. Basically, I ran away to the Island to the summer house I was building, and I fell in love with an Islander. And I’ve been here ever since. Before the pandemic, I would travel constantly, and the commute was the hardest part. It can take me forty-five minutes just to get to Edgartown!

MVM: Your firm is based in Boston and you’re constantly traveling for trial work. How do you do it? 

RS: I’ve gotten the trip to Boston down to three hours door-to-door, if conditions are perfect. The Patriot is my lifeline!

Before the pandemic, I would typically go up to Boston for a few days and jam everything in. Remote work has significantly improved my quality of life. All of the immigration court proceedings are now conducted online. Whereas I used to have to fly to Dallas, I can now stay in Cape Pogue.

MVM: You graduated from Suffolk University Law School in Boston and planned to work in criminal defense. How did you get into immigration?

RS: I was working for a lawyer in New York City who was a criminal defense attorney, and because I spoke Spanish, I got a job with a guy who did immigration.

I always loved the work – there’s alot of correlations in our country between criminal defense and immigration law. With the negative feelings toward immigration, a lot of these people are called “illegal” – I think it’s disgusting, no human being can be “illegal,” as Elie Wiesel has said. But you’re dealing with human beings in cages – the same as in criminal law. And both systems include the full force of the government. When the government wheels get turning, a lot of times the consequences are that peoples’ rights are violated. In that sense it was just a good fit for me. I find the work very fulfilling.

MVM: Where were you when you learned that forty-nine Venezuelan citizens had arrived unannounced on the Island?

RS: I got a call that Wednesday night. I had been out of work for the month grieving the death of my brother, and it was my first week back at work. I was in Boston and got a call around 9:00 p.m. saying what had happened, and I was put in touch with the people on the ground who had responded immediately. It never occurred to me not to get here as quickly as I could....

I didn’t know what the story was, where they came from. The key in those initial moments was to get the data. I had my cell phone, I had my laptop, I was taking photos of their documents and trying to hotspot them. We realized they had been processed when they got into the country. And then, as we were talking to them, we realized in very short order that they were victims of a crime. That they had been victimized in a political stunt.

MVM: Various Island agencies were immediately on the scene taking care of the individuals – arranging for food, shelter, and medical attention. What was your top priority in those first hours and days?

RS: Our primary goal was to get their check-ins extended. They were scheduled at offices around the country; all I kept thinking in those first ten days was, “Thank God we’re not getting weather.” One storm and they would have all been stuck! They would have lost their ability to pursue asylum. But we were able to coordinate with many attorneys from across the region, and everyone showed up pro-bono, just to help, to get it done.

MVM: What did you think of the reactions in the media about the way the Island handled this crisis?

RS: It’s pretty amazing how the community showed up. Despite the way it’s been spun to say we deported people and kicked them out, we’re all aware of what we’re capable of here. I like to use a parallel to Covid. We had five beds on this Island for Covid, and when people got sick, we sent them to [Mass General Hospital in Boston]. There are limitations because of where we are.

Similarly, there are five beds in the homeless shelter. We just don’t have the tools. We ultimately provided the services we could and connected them with resources – and then people were able to make the choices to live where they want.

The general opinion of all forty-nine people was that they weren’t used to the kind of kindness they received here. Initially, they didn’t trust us, because of how they’d been traumatized and lied to.... But in the end, there was nothing but gratitude from everyone who landed here.

MVM: Your involvement with this situation didn’t end when the individuals were transported to the Cape. Where are you at with these cases now?

RS: I’ve been in very close contact with the sheriff in San Antonio from early days. I coordinated to get him all of the evidence and victim statements to assist with his investigation, so he could certify 918B certification, which is what they’d need to apply for a U-Visa, saying they assisted with an investigation and were a victim of a crime. He certified for all forty-nine of them.

[In October I was] down in San Antonio picking up forty-nine certifications. I now represent five clients personally with co-counsel, so I will distribute these to my clients. It’s ironic; now that they have been certified as victims – because they were victims of unlawful restraint – [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis’s actions will end up protecting them.

It’s a very refreshing thing to see justice done when these people were violated so egregiously.

MVM: It must have been bizarre to have your two worlds – your career and your quiet Island existence – cross so dramatically. How has that impacted your day-to-day?

RS: It’s true, it all landed in my backyard, and there was no way for me to ignore what happened here, because I spoke the language....But the really interesting thing is that all of the immigration lawyers that responded to this event, we’re all used to things being a hot mess on every level. We are used to existing in a burning building. We see horrible stuff every day. There was definitely commentary on the ground happening like: This is just a Thursday.

MVM: What do you find most refreshing about living on the Island?

RS: My winter walks. I love them so much because I’m the only one out here.

People who do this work are typically of empathetic spirit – the stories you hear are so full of tragedy. The work I do, it can really eat you up and spit you out if you don’t have a place to recharge. Living here is a way for me to refill my batteries, so that I can continue to do this work, which can take a piece of you if you’re not careful.

And if it doesn’t take a piece of you, you shouldn’t be doing it.   

Comments (4)

Harvey Kaplan
The work of Rachel and the Martha’s Vinyard community has been inspirational a beacon to all.
November 15, 2022 - 4:07pm
Jennifer Marcus
West Tisbury
Rachel Self‘s commitment and dedication to her clients is extraordinary. She should be commended on her overall handling of this situation; specifically her immediate response, tenacity and willingness to take on major players, and the creative effectiveness of her strategies. Well done Rachel! The Island is lucky to have you as our representative!
November 16, 2022 - 11:03am
Jack Mccauley
Ms. Self’s strength and forthrightness was such a powerful reflection of the unique compassion with the people of Martha’s Vineyard! On top of the comprehensive and immediate response by the whole Island community it put a face to the heart and action one finds on the Island throughout. Many thanks!
November 17, 2022 - 11:18am
Ann Floyd
Those of us who live on our magic little island are so fortunate to have Rachel be among us. Her grandfather would be so, so proud of her!
November 22, 2022 - 7:32am